A bird sighted last week only for the third time in California has hundreds of birders flocking to Palo Alto's Midtown neighborhood.
The Oriental turtle-dove, also known as the rufous turtle-dove, has been hanging out near Greer Road and Maddux Avenue since Feb. 2. The bird was first spotted by wildlife biologist Andrew Bradshaw, who saw it feeding with local mourning doves under his bird feeder, he said by phone on Wednesday. Since then, the dove has attracted avian aficionados from all over the country.
Armed with birding scopes, binoculars and cameras, gaggles of birders can be seen training their equipment toward the trees. Sometimes, the bird appears in a tall, thin redwood visible from the Matadero Creek overpass on Greer Road; other times, it perches in a high tree on Colorado Avenue at Higgins Place.
The lone Oriental turtle-dove presides far above its human admirers. A sheen of rusty-golden-edged wing and back feathers and black-and-white feathers on the sides of its neck tipped in silver distinguish it from other local doves.
"It's a little like a Tiffany lamp," neighborhood resident and birder Ed Hillard said, gazing upward on Monday morning.
Matthew Dodder, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, said he arrived one day and got to see it for 18 seconds before it flew off its perch.
"The Oriental turtle-dove is exceedingly rare. This is only the third time it has been seen in California. It is considered a 'mega-rarity' with only a handful of reports from anywhere in North America," he said on Wednesday.
"The discovery of this bird was extremely exciting to birders. For most people, it was what we refer to as a 'lifer,' meaning we have never seen it before, anywhere. For others who had seen the bird in its normal range, it was an 'ABA Area life bird' — American Birding Association refers to North America including Canada, Alaska and Hawaii."
The Oriental turtle-dove is similar in shape to the Eurasian collared-dove but with a rusty scalloped pattern on its back and wings. It is immediately distinguishable from any other doves in the area, he said. The bird is closer in size to a pigeon than to the local mourning doves.
The bird's native distribution ranges mainly across Asia to Japan, where it isn't rare. A migratory species, it has six subspecies ranging from eastern and central Asia to the Himalayas and from central Siberia to Japan. It winters in India and as far south as Sri Lanka.
It also occupies an incredibly diverse habitat. According to the Cornell Laboratory’s Birds of the World website, the Oriental turtle-dove occupies habitats ranging from northern coniferous to tropical forests and from forest edges and mountainous regions of Japan, where it can thrive in subalpine habitats. It can occur in sparse woodland, scrub and wooded farmland bordering cultivated fields and it appears to be increasingly breeding in Japan in areas with tree-lined streets.
In Kashmir, it breeds in pine forests mixed with birch, aspen, poplar and willow groves, but it is also found in foothill oak, mixed deciduous and bamboo forests. It has been found as high as nearly 8,000 feet on Mt. Fuji and more than 13,000 feet in Nepal.
So how did it get here?
Dodder said that it might have traveled north from its breeding range instead of south as expected.
"It would have had to come across the Bering Strait to reach North America and may have then 'mirrored' its movement south. This is a common phenomenon with Asian vagrant species. It is often called 'mirror misorientation,'" he said, noting that its internal navigation system might not have been functioning properly.
"There are no records of this bird being kept in collections or sold by breeders, so it seems to have gotten here naturally. There is a possibility it was 'ship assisted,' meaning it was a stowaway on a freighter — quite common, actually. But we will likely never know," he said.
Palo Alto's dove has likely found a cozy place to hang out, with plenty of nearby seeds and grains in bird feeders or on the ground. Bradshaw, who is also a birder and does bird conservation work in the south bay, said he noticed the dove when it was feeding with mourning doves on the ground under his bird feeder. He wasn't sure what he was seeing at first, but after looking the bird up in his Sibley's Bird Guide, he thought it could be the Oriental turtle-dove.
He posted a request on a local birding Listserv for assistance identifying the bird. At first, he thought it was a possible lost pet or escaped captive bird, such as some parrots, doves and pigeons. But Alvaro Jaramillo, a global bird expert, responded that based on its plumage, it looked like a subspecies of the Oriental turtle-dove that can migrate and cross over to Alaska.
"He said that it is a super rare bird and I could expect large crowds," Bradshaw recalled.
"On the first weekend, more than 200 people showed up. On Wednesday, there were 20. I talked to a guy from St. Louis this morning. He had friends from New Jersey who are coming tomorrow," he said.
Bradshaw said he isn't a "chaser" — one who follows the birds wherever they go — but he has seen a number of rare birds, particularly in Palo Alto.
More recently, he viewed the rare curlew sandpiper, a small wader that breeds on the tundra of Arctic Siberia and winters in Africa, Asia and Australia and New Zealand, which had attracted crowds in the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve.
But the Oriental turtle-dove has beaten them all so far, as one birding expert told him: "This kind of blows that sandpiper out of the water."
There's no danger of the many people scaring the bird, since it's high enough away from people. The only threats could be from a Cooper's hawk that might swoop down to take it as a meal or outdoor cats, Dodder said.
Salying Wong and Andrew Yeh, avid birders for the past two years, said they arrived from Sunnyvale to view the Oriental turtle-dove. After a few days of trying, they were finally rewarded with a view of the bird on Monday.
What's most striking about this bird, or any rare sighting, is the incredible distance it has traveled to reach here, Yeh said.
"That it could find its way all the way over here is pretty amazing. That it can migrate long distances is pretty incredible," he said.
Wong said they aren't skilled enough to spot these rare birds on their own.
"We always spot the birders and ask, 'What do you see?'" she said.
They got interested in birding through technology they found online: the mapping apps and photographs, birding data and many ways to learn about avian diversity. Birding also became a great outlet during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing them to enjoy the outdoors and to meet many kind and generous people, she said.
But what about the social life of the Oriental turtle-dove, the only one of its kind? Just because it's the lone example doesn't mean it has to be lonely. The bird has been roosting with the mourning doves, Bradshaw said.
It's also quite possible it could also interbreed with local doves, Dodder said.
"Hybridization happens all of the time, often with ducks and gulls," he added.