Chasing Sightings – The Painted Redstart of Santa Clara

What’s a painted redstart?

A brash singular tweet punctuates the calm air among lilting finch songs, buzzy wren calls, and high, soft warbler chips. A few minutes later, another. “There is a stranger among us,” I assume the first Santa Clara birder to hear the Painted Redstart thought. The call is similar to a California Towhee but slightly lower pitched and more powerful, ringing through the trees.

A map of the southern United States, Mexico, and Central America. Parts of Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico are colored orange, depicting Painted Redstart breeding ranges, and parts of Mexico and Central America are colored purple depicting year round range.

The Painted Redstart (myioborus pictus) is a rare visitor to the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a small, warbler-like bird, a low-concern species and short-range migrant that prefers dry, warm climates with oak or pine-oak forests in Arizona, New Mexico, Mexico, and Central America. However, five individuals were documented in California over the past year: three at the beginning of the year and two in the fall. Each sighting was less than 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean.

The Santa Clara bird was first reported at Agnews Historic Park in Santa Clara, California on September 28th, 2022, a cleanly landscaped portion of the Oracle campus featuring four historic buildings once home to Agnews State Hospital. The park is across from the Oracle stadium and directly under the flyway to the San Jose airport, which is not particularly the most bird-friendly place.

Oct. 8 Field Notes – Finding the Redstart

I’m always on the hunt for out-of-place birds, so getting to see this beautiful vagrant was worth the two-hour drive from Napa to Santa Clara. I hopped in my clunk bucket of a car and hit the highway. I’m surprisingly not an early riser for a birder, so I arrived at the park just after noon. Nine other birders were circled around a pine tree, equipped with long-lens cameras, binoculars, bucket hats, and backpacks, staring silently into the branches. “Hmmm,” I thought humorously, “Birding made easy.”

I joined the flock of upward-gazing observers and scanned the trees for movement. A few minutes passed, and then someone pointed. 10 pairs of binoculars angled in synchronicity at the tiny black smudge above. Those of us with cameras repositioned around the tree to find a better shot. We moved slowly and quietly out of habit, hoping not to spook the bird. In hindsight, it was quite comical, considering that the children yelling across the park and the frequent roar of a commercial jet weren’t bothering this guy.

A black, white, and red bird is barely visible behind leaves in the foreground. Its back is turned and its left wing is outstretched

There it was, the painted redstart, preening, hidden amongst the leaves. All I could see was bird butt. Then, it jumped at a gnat, flashing conspicuous white wing patches and a streak of white “eyeliner.” It turned to face the observers and took off in a nearly vertical jump toward its prey. Its gorgeous red belly became the beacon to track this tiny rocket as it danced along the upper canopy. The scarlet splotch reminded me of “Painting the Roses Red” from Alice in Wonderland as if the card soldiers had scooped up this little nugget in haste during their artistic crusade. A 300x lens wasn’t quite good enough to get a detailed shot, but I managed to snag some photos. After watching this bird for about half an hour as it disappeared in and out of view, I began to wander. There were other birds to be seen, like the hoard of 15 hummingbirds fiercely defending their twiggy perches, the black Pheobe acting as the lawn’s protector from tiny bugs, and a red-breasted sapsucker spiraling endlessly around a thin tree trunk.

After I spotted the sapsucker, a local birder joined me to photograph it. She told me about the symbiotic relationship between the sapsucker and the redstart. Painted redstarts are primarily insectivores, gleaning tiny gnats from the foliage of tall trees. In the winter, they occasionally opt for more sugary treats, such as sap, to supplement their energy supply. The birder had previously observed the redstart following behind the sapsucker as it drilled sap wells, enjoying the sapsucker’s leftovers. Finally, an explanation as to why the redstart settled in this odd patch.

A red-headed bird with a long, sharp bill and black and white body clings to a tree trunk

At the time of this article, October 26th, the Santa Clara painted redstart is still hanging around. The buzz surrounding its arrival has faded, as every birder in the area has since checked it off their life lists. Sightings are now coming in once every few days instead of multiple reports daily. I wonder if it will over-winter here or return to its southern home before the chill sets in.

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