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Reprise 17: Malibu Lagoon hosts extremely rare Asian bird

May 19, 2020

Editor’s Note: Entry number seventeen in our tenth anniversary honor roll was originally posted 4-1-18 and is eleventh in overall popularity. Although not a “monograph” in the usual sense of the term, it was written by only one person (me), so we classify it as the fifth installment in our SMBAS Spring Quarter Monograph Series for purposes of convenience. Many local birders were unhappy to have missed this very unusual bird.  [Chuck Almdale]

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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 completely 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). Roberson commented (personal communication):

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 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 gyrations, 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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