When Is a California Thrasher not…

a California Thrasher?

One day recently, I was walking toward the UCSC Long Marine Laboratory with my camera. I had come from Natural Bridges and Antonelli pond. I thought I’d go see what was perching or foraging or flying about at Long Marine Lab. I had decided to not enter the grounds, after all, but to follow the path along Shaffer toward the railroad tracks. I’d seen a coyotes in the fields near there. Maybe I would again. Below is a photo of a coyote I’d seen on a previous visit.

Coyote pouncing on breakfast (he missed!) Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with TAMRON SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 A022, handheld, 1/500 sec., f/6.3, Iso 1000. Santa Cruz, California.

The song of a California Thrasher, heard from a bush ahead of me, changed my mind. The coyotes, or the potential of them, could wait. I walked quietly closer to the bush and saw the upper body of a bird.


I’d seen California Thrashers before; this bird did not have the Thrasher’s long, curved bill. Below is a photo of a California Thrasher I’d seen singing from atop a bush.

California Thrasher singing. Canon EOS 80D with TAMRON SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 A022, handheld, 1/800 sec., f/14, ISO 3200. Wilder Ranch, Santa Cruz County, California.

I pulled out my phone and launched the Merlin Bird ID (free!) app. The app had a new feature: sound identification. I selected “Sound ID” and the app began to record the song. And then the app started giving me “best matches.”

The first match was a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. That sounded exciting but I was dubious. I’d only seen a Black-headed Grosbeak in this area before. If Rose-breasted Grosbeaks weren’t found here, how could a mockingbird know the grosbeak’s song?

Rose-breasted Grosbeak in spring. Deenaerrampalli, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It turns out, according to the iBirds Plus app, that Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are “regular visitors on the west coast.” Could this be my bird?

As the bird continued to sing and as I continued to close in on it, Merlin now decided it was a Western Bluebird!

Western Bluebird perched near Antonelli Pond. Canon EOS 80D with TAMRON SP 150-600mm F/5-6.3 Di VC USD G2 A022, handheld, 1/1000 sec., f/6.3, ISO 1250. Santa Cruz, California.

The bird was backlit but it didn’t look like a Western Bluebird. Then the bird flew away and I saw the distinctive wing markings of a Northern Mockingbird!

Northern Mockingbird displaying distinctive wing pattern. Panasonic DC-FZ80, 1/250 sec., f/5.9, ISO 80. Delaveaga, Santa Cruz, California.

I glanced at the Merlin app and saw that Northern Mockingbird was one of the matches it was providing me.

Screenshot: Merlin Bird ID. iPhone 11.

Though both Merlin and I heard several types of bird songs, they all came from the same bird. Any other birds around were quietly respecting the performance of the Mockingbird.

When I select one of the birds in the “best matches” shown above, the red line moved to the part of the recording that reflected that bird’s song. Very cool.

So the lesson I learned — which I think the Merlin app had said when I first started using the Sound ID portion — was to not rely only on the sound; look for the bird.

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