Perched on the topmost branch of an elderberry, a shiny black bird turns his head, showing off his crest. Ruffling his black feathers he casts his bright red eyes about the area and calls out with a questioning "Wurp?" to his fellow Phainopepla. Lately, more and more sightings of this uniquely-named bird (pronounced fay-no-PEP-la) have been reported in the Agua Chinon area of OC Parks’ Limestone Canyon, an increase which birders and biologists say is as unique as the name.
On behalf of OC Parks, land manager Irvine Ranch Conservancy conducts bird counts throughout areas such as Limestone Canyon, and in just the past few months they have noted a sharp increase in the number of Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens)in Agua Chinon, especially around areas of elderberry (Sambucus nigra). Conservancy staff and volunteers counted just 4 individuals in Agua Chinon in April, then in June counted 64 in the same area.
“To see this many Phainopepla living closely together is unique to when they are living in oak woodlands,” explains Conservancy Restoration Field Crew Supervisor Josie Bennett. “This behavior of colony living is different from Phainopepla observed living in the desert.”
In the desert, Phainopepla are territorial, actively defending nesting and foraging sites. Ornithologists believe the same individuals move from the desert region to cooler coastal canyons and oak woodlands like Agua Chinon as the temperature rises and their primary food source of mistletoe berries runs out.
Phainopepla, a name taken from the Greek for “shining robe,” is a part of the silky flycatcher family. This striking bird has a very noticeable crest and a long tail. The male is glossy black, and has a white wing patch that is visible when it flies; the female is plain gray and has a lighter gray wing patch. Both sexes have ruby-red eyes.
Thanks to these distinctive features, Phainopepla can be seen from the trail and are easy to identify. Look for them flying from tree to tree or perched on the topmost branches, as they are rarely on the ground.
As a nature preserve, Limestone Canyon is open for scheduled programs only, but there are plenty of opportunities to get out this summer to see the mass of Phainopepla. The next opportunity to see these amazing birds is on the Mid-Week Hike – Agua Chinon. This early morning hike is scheduled for Wednesday, July 16, and covers a distance of 10 miles round trip. The activity is free, and pre-registration is required at www.LetsGoOutside.org