A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Tropical Kingbird is an unusual vagrant in Sonoma County. Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis) is the only kingbird/flycatcher of the genus Tyrannus normally present here. Tropical Kingbird is typically reported once or twice a year (if at all), most often at Bodega Bay or elsewhere along the coast, usually during autumn migration. Parmeter and Wight note "22 sightings of 29 individual birds" between 2000 and 2010. Elsewhere in the county, Tropical Kingbird has been seen at Shollenberger Park. Tropical Kingbird shows up as a vagrant fairly regularly at outer Point Reyes, in neighboring Marin County. Tropical Kingbird's normal range is from southern Arizona and southernmost Texas south. Ordinarily these birds move further south, into South America, during the winter. Why a few should go the opposite direction each year--they've been noted as far north as southern Alaska--I don't know. Usually seen perched on telephone lines or fence posts or flycatching from these or similar perches. Usually solitary. Kingbirds mid- to late September through November are always worth looking at closely, especially at the coast, to be certain that what might appear to be a Western Kingbird isn’t actually a Tropical Kingbird.

Tropical Kingbird is yellow-olive on the upper breast where Western Kingbird is grey and notably olive on the upper back as well. It has more white in the cheek and throat, and has a longer, heavier bill. The yellow of the belly extends further up the breast than in Western Kingbird, into the area that's grey on the more common bird. Tropical Kingbird shows a notch in its folded tail, and the tail is browner than that of Western Kingbird. Western Kingbird lacks the notch, while Tropical Kingbird lacks the white outer tail feathers of Western Kingbird (which, however, can be hard to see in the field). Note that juvenile Western Kingbirds may have a little olive on the back, suggesting Tropical Kingbird. Reddish-orange crown patch usually concealed.

Selected county sightings: Whaleship Rd., Bodega Bay (September 30-October 2, 2012, John Kelly); Doran Regional Park entrance (February 8, 2012); Near Diekmann's Bay Store (December 5, 2011 , Rich Stallcup); Bodega Bay (November 26, 2011, Cory Gregory); Near Jenner (October 21, 2010, Lisa Hug); Doran Regional Park (October 2, 2009, Bob Lewis); Shollenberger Park (August 28, 2009, Dan Noreen, Mary Rooney)

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 84

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 319

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 306

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 342

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 414-415

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 366

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 251 (mentioned in passing in entry for Cassin's Kingbird)

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 298

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 236

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 344

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 184

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 50

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 252

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 232

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 291

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 477

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 449

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Tropical Kingbird



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


Tropical King Bird, Sandpiper Ct., Bodega Bay, October 1, 2012

Tropical King Bird, Sandpiper Ct. Bodega Bay, October 1, 2012

Note olive back, heavy bill

For comparison: Western King Bird, Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, Petaluma, May 24, 2011

Note Grey back, head and upper breast, comparatively light bill

Tropical Kingbird

Tyrannus melancholicus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated September 18, 2013

EBird-reported occurrence in Sonoma County