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Malibu Lagoon hosts extremely rare Asian bird

April 1, 2018

The Ehler’s Sandhopper-Warbler, Harenadsultim ehleri, a rarely-glimpsed member of the little-known central Asian family of Sandhopper-Warblers, was photographed recently at Malibu Lagoon by the same team of ornithologists who first discovered the bird in its native habitat, and for whom it is named.

Breeding grounds of Harenadsultim ehleri, northern Gobi Desert, south central Mongolia

Despite the preferred mode of locomotion as implied by the name, the bird is capable of sustained flight over long distances. Its normal migration takes it from its breeding grounds in central Mongolia to the interior desert of Western Australia.

Approximate wintering grounds of Harenadsultim ehleri in Central Western Australia

The exact migratory route is unknown, but is conjectured to lead through southward through China and Indochina to Indonesia, then eastward through Indonesia to the Australian mainland, where it gravitates to a remote area in the arid central western desert. This route would necessitate numerous short and several long flights over water.

Cape Rockjumper,Chaetops frenatus. Not at all the same bird. (Mike Buckham BirdingAfrica.com)

The bird sighted at Malibu must have flown east across the Bering Strait, but – it is believed – otherwise could have hopped its way east and southward along the sandy shores of the Pacific Northwest and down to Southern California.

Hareanadsultim ehleri – Ehler’s Sandhopper-Warbler – on the move at Malibu Surfrider Beach (photo: R. Ehler 3-25-18)

Adventurers, explorers, scientists and all-around bon vivants Drs. Randy & Polly Ehler originally discovered and documented this elusive species in the Gobi Desert of Southern Mongolia. The bird has been sighted only once on its presumed regular wintering grounds in the Australian desert.

Hareanadsultim ehleri momentarily at rest
(photo: R. Ehler 3-25-18, Malibu Surfrider Beach)

LATE-BREAKING ALERT !
Several days after our original publication on 1 April, 2018, we received notification of another sighting of Ehler’s Sandhopper-Warbler. This sighting was on 1 April, 2018, but several hundred miles farther north and quite likely was a different bird. Well-known international birder, Don Roberson, was out doing some morning birding at a local patch, – the Iris Canyon vicinity of the Monterey MPC campus in Monterey, CA, to be exact – when he spotted and photographed what he naturally assumed at the time to be a typical Yellow-rumped Warbler, well on its way into alternate (breeding) plumage. Alerted by our announcement of the presence of the Ehler’s Sandhopper-Warbler in Southern California, he reexamined his photograph, and discovered it to be the Ehler’s. This second sighting supports Dr. Ehler’s conjecture (see below) that the birds may have been wintering in North America for a very long time, their presence unsuspected until now, due to their exceptionally close resemblance to the unrelated and very common Yellow-rumped Warblers.

Another sighting of Ehler’s Sandhopper-Warbler in Monterey, CA, this time hopping over both a large bush and the photographer. (Don Roberson 4-1-18)

The photo is included in Roberson’s eBird checklist for that day (not yet corrected to include Ehler’s Sandhopper-Warbler). In his communication with us, Roberson commented:

I read your article with interest. Just yesterday I photographed what I thought was a Yellow-rumped Warbler but I wonder if I misidentified the Ehler’s Sandhopper-Warbler? Please note that subject in question is clearly hopping — without spreading its wings — except this hop was much higher — well over my head — and might suggest a means to hopping from canopy to canopy across North America.  Just a hypothesis, of course, as you guys are on the cutting edge of science here.

Roberson has long been fascinated by the entire spectrum of the families of birds of the world, and has assembled his photographs and discussions into an extremely attractive and informative website*, Creagrus @ Monterey Bay, deserving of the attention of any birder similarly inclined. I didn’t see Sandhopper-Warblers among the avian families listed, so this sighting will give him something to catch up on. Many thanks to Don Roberson for his alert attention to detail!

* Note: The lovely Swallow-tailed Gull Creagrus furcatus is endemic to the Galapagos Islands and is the sole species in its genus.

Rockhopper Penguin, Gorfou sauteur, Antartica (Samuel Blanc 12-21-07 wikicommons)

Renowned Ornithologist Dr. Leotard Skynyrd, of Miskatonic University in Arkham, Mass. confirmed the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the sighting. “It’s an extremely long way for an six-inch bird to hop, and well  away from the presumed route to its normal winter destination. As far as I know, this species has never previously appeared in North America. In fact, I’ve never heard of this species at all. It’s completely new to me.”

Dr. Ehler said of his namesake: “Despite the close resemblance to our locally common Setophaga coronata auduboni, the habits of the bird are quite different. In its native treeless Mongolian desert, it feeds on small invertebrates found on salt-tolerant shrubs in the Ephedra genus of Ephedraceae, plants not too dissimilar from our own Mormon Tea Ephedra

Sand Hopper, Talitrus saltator, Bornholm Is., Baltic Sea (Arhold Paul 7-7-06 Wikicommons)

nevadensis of western America, except that the stimulating effect of the plant’s leaves is enormously greater than that of our local plant. Invertebrates feeding on the plant ingest the ephedrine alkaloids, which are then passed on to the bird which feeds on them. We believe that the birds cannot stand still because of all the ephedrine in their diet. They are quite literally “hopped up.”

H. ehleri do not build nests, rather laying their eggs directly on the sand in the shade of an ephedra bush. The eggs are then covered with 1-3 inches of

American Bird Grasshopper, Schistocerca americana, Green Swamp, Florida, 6-29-08 (birdphotos.com)

sand. The chicks hatch 25-30 days later, depending on ambient weather and the warmth of the sun-heated sand. Highly precocious, the 2-4 chicks immediately move into the shady bush and begin gleaning for insects feeding on the leaves and stems. How they find their way to Australia after maturation is unknown.

Dr. Ehler adds: “For all we know, they may have been coming to North America for a very long time,  but were previously unnoticed due to their strong

Common Bush Hopper male, Ampittia dioscorides, Kadavoor, Kerala, India
(Jeevan Jose 10-2-11)

resemblance  to the local race of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Although it is currently presumed that they normally winter in the Australian desert, this presumption is based entirely on that single sighting. With this new sighting here in North  America, we have to consider the possibility that North America is the preferred and usual wintering location, and the Australian winter locale was the aberration, or even a misidentification, as unlikely as that may seem.

Starting from the unusual behavior of this

Candy-striped Leaf Hopper, Graphocephala coccinea (Bruce Marlin 6-15-05)

little-known avian family,  some zoologists and taxonomists have gone so far as to call into question the current phylogeny, asking themselves whether a complete re-sequencing needs to be considered. Dr. Skynyrd comments: “Some are conjecturing that the family of “Hoppers” be created, and animals that share the unusual preference of locomotion by hopping be classified to it.  This seems extremely premature to me. Much more research needs to be done before such a radical reconfiguration is made. But if the reclassifications are done, the new family would contain only hoppers, not jumpers. Despite superficial similarities between hopping and jumping, entirely different musculoskeletal structures are involved.”

We look forward to these exciting possibilities in avian nomenclature and classification. Congratulations to the Ehlers for their revolutionary discoveries.

Forester Kangaroo in mid-hop, Narawntapu Park, Tasmania
(PanBK at the English language Wikipedia, Dec 05)

Attha Hoppers courting rituals frequently consist of numerous participants involved in simultaneous courting, akin to the mating behavior of squid.
(The Medestrian.com)

The above species member of the proposed family of Hoppers has numerous songs utilized only during courting.

Those who found this article plausible, should also read:
2013:   Birders Take Their Lumps With Their Splits
2012:   Canyonland Roadrunner Captured on Film
2011:   New Hummingbird Species Discovered in Los Angeles County!
2010:  The Western Roof-Owl: Bird of Mystery
[Chuck Almdale — 1 April, 2018]

 

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19 Comments leave one →
  1. Anthony Maddela permalink
    April 13, 2018 3:25 pm

    Hi Chukar,

    Thanks for this and other insightful sightings and findings.

    We would like to see this rare bird, but the photo or link doesn’t appear where indicated in the text.

    Take care,

    Anthony

    ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

  2. April 3, 2018 12:55 pm

    It must be in Salton Sea area by now. Some inebriated Palm Springs Springbreaker will no doubt record it on eBird.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David S. permalink
    April 2, 2018 7:07 pm

    Hop springs eternal.

    I seem to remember some early taxonomic work on this group by the ornithologist H. Along Cassidy.

    Like

    • Chukar permalink*
      April 3, 2018 3:51 pm

      The entire proposed family of Hoppers is – I believe – named in honor of Mr. Cassidy, one of my childhood heroes, best known for the manner in which he roamed the Old West, saving damsels and righting wrongs.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Mary Hansen permalink
    April 2, 2018 4:39 pm

    Such a good bird nerd report! I love that you caught this little bugger mid-hop!

    Like

    • Chukar permalink*
      April 3, 2018 3:47 pm

      Randy Ehler took the photo, and the mid-hop catch was essential. Without it there’s no way to reliably separate it from the Yellow-rumped Warbler, unless you capture it and do an overly-personal examination.

      Like

  5. Jeri Edwards permalink
    April 1, 2018 1:04 pm

    Best April 1 article (and informative, I might add) I’ve ever read. Still LOL!

    Like

    • Chukar permalink*
      April 1, 2018 1:41 pm

      It’s just another example of how fortune favors the prepared mind.
      Either that, or delusion dogs the misinformed mind. I’m not sure which is applicable in this case.

      Like

  6. April 1, 2018 9:32 am

    Aha! I’ve got you now, Almdale. There’s something about this article that is suspect. There are two completely different species labeled as “Graphocephala coccinea.”

    OTOH I am in agreement with your proposed re-classifications. You may recall our encounter with the Red-necked Border Tyrant in Chile many years ago. He too was hopping up and down. Food for thought.

    Like

    • Chukar permalink*
      April 1, 2018 1:37 pm

      My esteemed editor missed that typo, which is now corrected, thanks to you, the proverbial alert reader. Scientific papers such as this one, are filled with innumerable facts and miniscule details, all which need to be scrutinized. Our minds were clouded and vision blurred by fatigue – not to mention by that bottle of beer.

      Apropos your mention of the Red-faced Border-Tyrant, whom I remember very well – it was, by the way, in Bolivia, to which we had just passed the border from Argentina on the way to a total solar eclipse – I added another proposed Hopper family member at the end of the blog, the notorious Attha Hoppers.

      Like

  7. Cat waters permalink
    April 1, 2018 9:30 am

    Okay, Chuck!!! I read the whole thing . Only in the third paragraph did I get that you were having some April Fools day fun with your fans.

    Like

    • Chukar permalink*
      April 1, 2018 12:36 pm

      You have an unusually suspicious mind. You should get that checked by a professional.
      One must have faith, my child. One must believe, or Tinkerbell will never fly again.

      Like

  8. ednalvarez permalink
    April 1, 2018 8:34 am

    What would be the major diagnostics to look for to distinguish the Ehlers from the Yellow-rump?

    Like

    • April 1, 2018 9:39 am

      Edna – I think this simple calculation should do it: X=E*T where E is the space between the feet and the ground while not in flight, measured in millimeters; T is the time spent with the feet off the ground while not in flight, measured in seconds; these measurements made over a period of 60 seconds. If X > 600 then you have a diagnostic for the Ehlers.

      Like

      • Chukar permalink*
        April 1, 2018 12:42 pm

        Also, as shown in the first picture of the bird, it doesn’t need to spread it’s wings in order to move through the air because it’s HOPPING!
        You should have noted that the Rockjumper (in its photo) doesn’t use its wings to jump the rocks, in its superficially similar mode of locomotion.
        I’ve seen rockjumpers bounding along in South Africa, and it’s quite a shock when first observed. My reaction was something along the lines of, “What the #$%$ is THAT?!!”

        Like

    • Chukar permalink*
      April 1, 2018 12:34 pm

      Hopping o’er the sand, rather than flycatching from a tree.

      Like

  9. Tom Hinnebusch permalink
    April 1, 2018 5:52 am

    Whoa! Think it’s still there, Chuck? I’m running out there right now! But what a traffic jam there’ll be, and no parking besides. Probably not worth the gas to chase this guy!

    Like

    • Chukar permalink*
      April 1, 2018 12:33 pm

      No, it was a week ago, and it appeared to leave the vicinity, heading east, hop-hop-hopping along, shortly after the photographs were taken.

      Like

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