Saturday, December 22, 2007

Utterly Pointless Anthropomorphized Bird of the Week

Anthropomorphized penguins are a dime a dozen. But binge-drinking, underage penguins speaking Slovenian...priceless!

Happy holidays to all!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Just Another Day in Paradise

Ho hum. Whatever.

Last week, Orange County birders got an early Christmas/Hannukah/Festivus gift: a young Roseate Spoonbill who kept everyone staring obsessively up and down the banks of the Santa Ana River for a week before it decamped for the 909. (Or not—intriguingly, I got an e-mail from another birder who had Spoonbill sightings both in Orange and upstream in Riverside County, and feels they are different individuals.)

In any case, I haven't heard of any more Spoonbill sightings down here in the last few days. And even more conspicuously, no sightings of anything else have been reported to our local boards either. I'm sure this is not for the lack of great birds in the area: It's just that after last week's Spoonbill Fest, almost anything else would seem anticlimactic. (Yet another Light-footed Clapper Rail! Yawn.)

So this weekend felt a bit like the days right after Christmas: kind of a bittersweet return to normalcy.

Still, normal is good. Today, we decided to go back to Peters Canyon Regional Park, which we haven't visited since summer. Almost immediately, we spotted the Hooded Merganser reported by Neil Gilbert a few weeks ago—it was too far away for us to photograph, but its poofy black-and-white crest and brown flanks were conspicuous.

We also spotted several very noisy California Gnatcatchers, and our fun bird of the day: a rather bold Greater Roadrunner on the hill by the dam. We watched as it casually strolled across the path in front of us and ducked into the roped-off area overlooking the reservoir.

No bragging rights go with any of these birds. But the more I bird, the more I realize how lucky I am to live in an area where sightings of birds like these are almost routine. Flashy rarities sometimes make me lose touch with the richness and complexity of our local birding environment, and sometimes it takes a really boring weekend to bring things back into focus.

Normal is good.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Persistence Pays (And So Does Sloth)

Orange County Bird of the Week: The Roseate Spoonbill

There is a fundamental difference between the way bird photographers operate, and the way birders operate. Photographers seek out big, pretty birds in nice, pretty settings. Birders seek out anything with wings. Birders can spend hours looking into thick, shadowy foliage for that special warbler; photographers won't bother because (1) birds are great, but actually looking for birds is boring, and (2) even if that bird is in there, it'll make a crappy shot.

Birders flit from spot to spot in search of some rarity rumored to have been seen there 15 minutes earlier, while photographers plant themselves, like sequoias, in scenic locations, waiting for the birds to compose themselves into a perfect shot. This can take weeks.

I know this because Glenn is a photographer who happens to be deeply into birds, and I'm a birder who occasionally takes photos so Glenn won't think I'm making stuff up when I see something he doesn't.

But when the Roseate Spoonbill first showed up in the Santa Ana River in Orange on Thursday, we both knew we had to see it. It had everything both birdheads and photographers could want: It's a rarity. It would be a lifer for both of us. It's big, pink, and pretty. And it's here.

Since I work at home of Fridays, I set off first thing Friday morning to find it: I knew I was in the right place because of the large number of people with spotting scopes and binoculars pacing up and down the bike path. But after several hours, no one had seen it, and I gave up. After all, I was supposed to be at home working.

Today, both of us headed back to Orange, chasing reports that it had been seen downriver late Friday afternoon. Someone told us it had actually been seen a few minutes earlier UP the river, so we returned to our car and followed a caravan of birders to the intersection of Lakeview and Riverdale. There, we learned that the darned thing had been spotted napping nearby earlier, but had just taken off.

Nevertheless, we slogged up the path, Glenn hauling his usual ton of photo gear, hoping the Spoonbill would return. Several people decided to cross the river to see if it was foraging on the channel on the other side. We started heading back to the car. Sigh. This is precisely the sort of birding that photographers hate.

I debated crossing the river to see what was there, but I knew Glenn didn't want to drag his gear all the way back up the path and across the berm spanning the river. We agreed that I'd go and wave back to him if I saw anything.

Just as I turned to go, something big and pink flew up from the channel: the Spoonbill! Glenn immediately started shooting away—and it circled around and landed in the river, just in front of us!

And I realized that we had totally lucked out: had we given up and left a moment sooner, we would have missed it. Had we persisted and crossed the river with the other birders, we also would have missed that great close-up view of him. We only got to see it because we were slothful and indecisive—too indecisive to even give up.

It's a rare moment when one's vices become virtues—and we plan to enjoy it.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bling of Brightwater

Through the glass darkly: Everything you want in a shorebird, and so much less!

Sometime last week, Glenn and I were talking about the Wall of Death surrounding the Brightwater development at Bolsa Chica, and the conversation went off on a weird tangent.

"'Brightwater.' That reminds me of that film Ring of Bright Water," Glenn said.

I told him it sounded vaguely familiar, but I hadn't seen it. "What's it about?"

"It's about this man who keeps a wild otter as a pet, and it trashes his house."

"And then what happens?"

"He lets it go, and it gets killed."


I knew there had to be a moral in there somewhere.

The Wall of Death has been getting ample coverage, both from the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times , as well as through several other local outlets. And with this coverage comes the inevitable backlash: How could you idiots be so worried about a handful of birds when there are so many Really Important Adult Matters at stake?

These Really Important Matters fall into two groups (1) homelessness/the war in Iraq/health care and (2) Property values. Yes, I know world peace is a more urgent goal than taking down a glass wall in Huntington Beach, but birders have the knowledge and resources to do something about the latter and not the former. And I've noticed that those who invoke intractable social problems to trivialize birders' concerns are generally not the ones doing a whole lot to solve these big problems, either. So no, I don't feel like a moral midget.

And as for the second kind of Really Important I mentioned to another birder this weekend during another Sea and Sage walk along the wall, it seems that just about any kind of selfish, unsafe, or antisocial behavior instantly becomes acceptable if one utters the magic words PROPERTY VALUES! (You're having Nelson Mandela as a house guest next weekend?! BUT WHAT ABOUT MY PROPERTY VALUES???).

And as a letter-writer to the Times noted today, it's ironic that people will be paying a premium to live by a nature reserve, but will be blocked off from it by a wall that kills exactly what makes the reserve special.

To their credit, the Brightwater people have installed a windscreen behind the chain-link fence that they recently erected behind the glass wall. And they promise to cover the glass wall with decals that are unobtrusive to the human eye, but reflect ultraviolet light conspicuous to birds. The Audubon conservationist leading our last two walks along the wall says these have proven effective in some cases in preventing bird collisions.

I do hope this works, and unlike A Ring of Bright Water, this Brightwater epic will have a happy ending. The worst-case scenario will be like the movie: some wild force cannot be tamed, or made compatible with suburban life. And everyone involved will suffer because of it.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


                     Yum, yum!

The Thanksgiving holiday has been a welcome respite from my insane work schedule. We had our customary decadant dose of turkey and stuffing with my family up in L.A., AND two extra days to spend birding—what more could we want?

Even though we didn't spot too many rarities, just being outdoors with our cast of regulars was enough to be thankful for. My family, quite sensibly, has always eaten Thanksgiving dinner late (since everyone gets sleepy after a big dose of turkey, why not hold off the feast until just before bedtime?) Thus, Glenn and I had most of Thanksgiving day to spend outdoors looking for birds.

We started out at TeWinkle Park in Costa Mesa, where a couple of Hooded Mergansers and Yellow-throated Warbler were spotted last year. No rarities of that magnitude have been spotted there recently, but it still has a pretty pond filled with feisty ducks and herons, and is a pleasant place for strolling and photography. And as is the case with any park, occasional surprises do show up: last week, we saw this bird, who appears to be a female Summer Tanager:

Then we headed to the Upper Newport Bay, where we spotted two of the Eurasian Wigeons reported there earlier in the week. We also spotted a loon off near the opposite side of the bay, but from where we were, we couldn't tell what kind it was (most likely, it was the Pacific Loon reported during the last Sea and Sage monthly survey of the area).

On Friday, we celebrated Buy Nothing Day at Bolsa Chica, which was as jammed with waterfowl as South Coast Plaza was with shoppers. Over 100 Double-crested Cormorants were swimming near the footbridge, as were dozens of Brown Pelicans, Lesser Scaups, and Western Grebes. Near the tidegates were several Redheads mingling with the Scaups, as well as dozens of Snowy Egrets and White Pelicans. The only unusual birds we found were the resident Reddish Egret and a male Eurasian Wigeon, who was vocalizing loudly in one of the back lagoons.

We also saw, from a distance, the infamous bird-killing glass wall surrounding the McMansions on top of the bluff. I noticed strips of yellow tape—the kind used for police barricades—flapping from the wall: Were these put up in response to bird concerns? And who did it?

I learned during today's Sea and Sage Audubon trip to Bolsa Chica (can't get enough of that place!) that the tape wasn't actually attached to the wall, but to a chain-link fence that had just been installed directly behind the wall, in response to birders' concerns.

While a clearly imperfect solution (its looks won't go over well with homeowners, and small birds may still fly into the glass when trying to move through the fence), it at least shows that birders aren't as wimpy they look: we have the moral authority and clout to push people to do the right thing.

And this is something else to be thankful for.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Friday Fiction

Until recently Amy Hooper's blog (she's the editor of WildBird) featured an intriguing monthly contest: write a piece of short fiction (500-word limit) about birding. There were a few ground rules: the birds could not be anthropomorphized, and the stories needed to have a narrative arc and some kind of resolution.

I haven't written any fiction since grade school, but this seemed like too interesting a challenge to pass up. Unfortunately by the time I got my act together and submitted a story, the contest had been discontinued. Sigh.

But the great (or horrible) thing about blogging is that one gets to be totally me-centric. So here is my modest contribution to the world of birding-related micro-fiction. Enjoy!

The Real World

       Jake still hasn’t returned my call, my mother won’t stop calling, and for some stupid reason I promised my roommate that I would spend the day with her—get this—looking at birds. Does my life suck or what?
       “Come on Jen, it’s almost 7:30.”
       “I’m coming.”
       “And grab that binocular—it’s my spare, you’ll need it.”
       If I had known that Morgan always, freaking ALWAYS, said ‘binocular’ without the ‘s’, I swear I would never have moved in here.
       We got into Morgan’s dusty Prius. I didn’t ask where we were going, and I didn’t care. Probably one of her favorite hangouts, like the Bolsa Chica wetlands. Morgan is always going on about how birding is such as rush because it’s so real, life at its most basic. Once I got fed up with her touchy-feely BS and asked her if all those warblers were such an important part of the Real World, why didn’t they band together and get her that promotion.
       She didn’t get mad. She just gave me that look of hers.
       “Jen, look, I promise you’ll like this. Trust me. At least it’ll get your mind off Jake.” She pulled a hard right and turned into a tiny parking lot. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. No surprise here.
       We followed a path overlooking a lagoon filled with sandpipers and seagulls. She tried to tell me what they were all called, but the names—willet? whimbrel?— all blurred together.
       “Wait, I thought of something I think you’ll like. This way–“
       A short while later, we were at another lagoon.
       “Check out that Mallard—she’s got really cute babies.”
       I put Morgan’s binoculars up to my eyes. The ducklings were downy and mottled, and made little beeping noises as they swam after their mother. They weren’t that cute—not like the bright yellow ones they sell at Easter. But it was seriously weird how babies that tiny could swim in cold water and feed themselves. Mama Duck didn’t seem to be really helping them.
       It must suck to be a duckling.
       “The other birds to look out for here are —oh my god, LOOK!!”
       Morgan shot a finger at the sky. “It’s a Peregrine Falcon! Look, he’s diving!”
       I barely managed to spot it in mid-descent when I heard a splash and a bunch of ducks quacking and beeping.
       “Jen, he caught something! Now he’s —wait—yeah, he’s in that tree. Check it out.”
       I aimed my binoculars at the tree. Holy crap.
       “Morgan, what are we going to do?”
       “He’s got one of the baby ducks!”
       “Well, yeah, Peregrines eat other birds.”
       “But that baby—“
       “Already dead. Besides, Peregrines are endangered around here; Mallards are really common.”
       On the drive home, I didn’t feel like talking. Morgan had that blissed-out look she always has when she’s been birdwatching.
       Instead, I pulled out my phone. No call from Jake, but for some reason, I didn’t care. But there was a message from Mom. I guess it’s about time we touched base again.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Cold, Snowy Day in So Cal

Today was a quiet birding day. I woke up early as usual, blasted through the Sunday L.A. Times, worked on my PowerPoint presentations for my classes next week—then realized that I felt like crap: I was obviously coming down with the flu.

But this didn't stop me from birding. Glenn had slept in, and after a late-morning trip to Starbucks for lattes , we headed to Crystal Cove for some healthy ocean air and photo opportunities.

Walking around on the beach (wearing layers of sweats and a pair of gloves that Glenn had wisely stored in the car) made me feel a lot better. On the beach were not only the usual Black and Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings, but also about four Snowy Plovers. This surprised me: from my modest training for the Least Tern/Snowy Plover breeding project at Huntington State Beach last summer, I thought the Snowys departed for Mexico at the end of summer. But according to Hamilton and Willick''s guide to Orange County birds, they're here in small numbers year-round.

In either case, I'm glad I saw them, and even more glad that I got out of the house to see them. On the way home, we picked up a big pizza and ate it in front of the TV while drinking beer and watching "Ratatouille" on DVD. (Yes, I fully realize the potential irony of this—but it was a good pizza from a local, family-owned joint, and not some random Domino's thing.)

And I realized something else, apart from the interesting fact that Snowy Plovers appear year-round in these parts: No matter what ailment I have, a big dose of carbs, fat and booze always make it better. I don't think it works this way for most people.

I'm a very lucky girl.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

So Near, and Yet So Far

I hate to drive. I have a huge list of birding spots, Oaxacan restaurants, and interesting historical monuments all over Southern California that I plan to visit—eventually. But I never do because I don't feel like driving that far. I like to think it's because I'm environmentally responsible, but it's really just sloth. That, and my regular 100-mile round-trip commute to work from Costa Mesa to West L.A., through some of the most hellish traffic imaginable, makes the very idea of weekend freeway time unthinkably repulsive.

As a result, I've been doing most of my recent birding in my own zip code, or within a 15-minute radius of it—and I'm one of those lucky souls who can get a lot of good birds this way. But today, Glenn and I broke from our routine and headed all the way out to—ooh!—Orange! (And Glenn, who has an easy 15-minute commute to work, got to drive! Ha, ha.)

We spent several hours at Yorba Regional Park, a terrific place we'd only visited once before. It was actually Glenn's idea: he wanted some photos of the Wood Ducks that regularly frequent the park. And just as we had hoped, they were there, in the long pond that runs the length of the park (along with a Mandarin Duck, a Ring-necked Duck, a couple of Redheads, and the usual large flocks of Mallards, American Coots, and Ruddy Ducks).

(The true wonder of this photo is that it looks as though it were taken at twilight, as the setting sun cast its dying amber rays upon the water. In reality, it was taken at 10:00 a.m., and the evocative golden glow is the reflection of bright yellow plastic playground equipment on the shore.)

The trip also yielded birds we'd never seen at our usual coastal birding spots: several Mountain Chickadees and a White-breasted Nuthatch. We also got a another lifer: a Red-breasted Sapsucker, who we spotted twice in the grove of trees between the pond and the bike path along the river. (Unfortunately, it wasn't as cooperative as the Wood Ducks: we saw its unmistakable red head and black wings, but it didn't stay still long enough for photos.)

This assortment of birds seemed quite exotic to me, yet we were only a half-hour drive from home. It made me realize that birds are homebodies too.

But unlike birds, I can—and should—expand my range.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Embrace the Dark

A Merlin at Bolsa Chica

When I was a kid, Sunday evenings were my least-favorite time of the week: they signaled the end of the weekend and the impending onslaught of another week of homework and tests. And the worst Sunday night of all was the one right after Halloween, when we turned the clocks back: it was always darker, and sadder, with more homework and more torturous piano lessons and spelling tests looming ahead than any other weekend of the year.

Now that I'm grown up, I don't mind Sundays quite so much. Mondays suck less when you actually like your job. But now the dark Sunday night at the end of daylight savings time creeps me out for another reason: it reminds me of yet another year gone by—I'm just old enough to start worrying about stuff like that. And now I have yet another rubric for measuring the passing the the seasons: the comings and goings of birds.

But at least the arrival of a new crop of migrating birds is always something to look forward to, rather than something to dread.

This weekend, Glenn and I got two lifers, which everyone else in the 714/949 area code probably saw as well: the female Long-tailed Duck at Bolsa Chica, and the Red-throated Pipit at Harriet Wieder Park on the south end of Bolsa Chica. The duck was by the tidegates on Saturday morning, hanging out with a group of Lesser Scaups and Western Grebes. She stayed relatively close to the tidegate for about 15 minutes before taking off.

The aptly named Long-tailed Duck

We also saw the Merlin that had been reported there this week, along with a couple of American Kestrels and an Osprey eating a fish in one of the dead trees on the mesa.

Even better, nearly the whole complement of winter ducks was present—the Lesser Scaup, a Redhead, Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintails, Surf Scoters, and Buffleheads. We had fun showing these off to a novice birder hanging out by the tidegates, still amazed by the idea of all these birds. "Wow," she exclaimed, waving an arm at the passing traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, "all those people are just driving right past this place. And they have no idea..."

On Sunday morning, we went to find the Red-throated Pipit at Harriet Wieder Park. This also proved to be fairly straightforward: we just followed all the people with spotting scopes. Luckily, they were a friendly and generous bunch; without them, I'm sure we wouldn't have been able to pick it out of the huge flock of very active and skittish American Pipits it was hanging with. Claiming this as a lifer only after a group of people practically grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and shoved my face into it felt a bit like cheating—but I'll take it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

I Should Be Working Instead of Writing This

It's still fall, and I'm already in reruns! A Cooper's Hawk at Huntington Central Park seen last weekend

Work has been crazy-busy the last week or so, and I haven't had birds on the brain as much as usual. (Maybe this is a good thing.) I spent most of Sunday afternoon staring at my laptop and poring through journal articles instead of poking around Bolsa Chica. Sigh.

We did make it to the Sea and Sage Audubon Pancake Breakfast on Saturday, where we indulged in pancakes and birdy gossip before a sudden (and welcome) drizzle hit. On Saturday afternoon, I went on another long walk through Talbert Nature Reserve down to the Santa Ana River mouth. No lifers, but I did see a nice assortment of the usual suspects: a couple of Western Meadowlarks, lots of White-crowned Sparrows, Red-tailed and Cooper's Hawks, an Osprey, a pair of American Kestrels, California Gnatcatchers, and several Western Bluebirds. In the river were several Northern Pintails and Lesser Scaups—the first I've seen there this year.

On Sunday morning, I dragged Glenn back to Huntington Central park to find the Green-tailed Towhee reported there last week. We didn't find it, but we did see endless flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Nutmeg Mannekins. There were also a good number of Townsend's Warblers, and several Black-throated Greys.

Okay, now I really do have to get back to work...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Birds in Bondage

Submit! A Fox Sparrow being banded at Starr Ranch

A while back, Glenn and I were birding at San Joaquin marsh, and saw a Common Yellowthroat with a metal band on its leg. We knew that rare birds such as California Condors and Snowy Plovers are often captured and banded (or raised in captivity and banded before release), but we wondered about that Yellowthroat: why would anyone bother banding such an ordinary bird? Had it been sick? Or was there some other reason for this?

Yesterday, we finally found out. We attended an introductory bird-banding workshop sponsored by Starr Ranch Bird Observatory and California Audubon, and got to see bird banding up close—and we learned that even ordinary backyard birds are caught and banded so ornithologists can track migration and population patterns among different bird species.

We signed on for this partly out of curiosity, and partly so we'd be able to eventually help out with the banding efforts ourselves (what better way to get a really up-close and personal view of birds?) For understandable reasons, workshop participants weren't allowed to actively take part in the delicate process of catching and banding the birds, but we still got an eyeful. We watched at close range as the leaders set up nets to catch the birds, carefully extracted the birds that got caught in them, then banded, weighed, and examined them before releasing them:

The Fox Sparrow is free to leave. It had been placed in the pink canister for weighing.

One of the highlights of the workshop was its location: Starr Ranch, a gorgeously untouched parcel of oaks and sage scrub hidden inside a gated housing development near Mission Viejo. Turning from a wide, newly paved road lined with manicured hedges onto the one-way private road to Starr Ranch was like stepping into a time machine: Suddenly, no sidewalks. No lawns. No hedges or streetlights. Only a boulder-lined creek bed and a profusion of native trees and brush. Towhees and squirrels darted across the bumpy little road as we descended towards the ranch. How did this place manage not to get paved over?

At the ranch, a colony of Acorn Woodpeckers was busy filling its granaries for winter. They all managed to avoid the nets.

One of the two birds that did get caught during the hour or so the nets were up should have known better: an Oregon Junco that had been previously banded .The Audubon biologist leading the workshop weighed the bird, checked it for age and sex, and checked its old records before releasing it.

The rest of our weekend birding was a wash. A nagging voice in the back of my head kept telling me that I should be inside working, and maybe the windy weather and general absence of birds (at least birds visible or audible to me) was a cosmic reminder that I ought to heed that voice.

And I did—and I'm glad I did; I got a ton of stuff done. But there are still a few hours of daylight left; maybe I'll take a quick stroll through the hood to see if there are any warblers about.

Monday, October 15, 2007

It's Blog Action Day, and I'm Supposed to Rouse You to Action!

These are heady days for us tree-huggers. Al Gore has the Nobel Peace Prize, the freeways are clogged with Priuses rather than hummers, and even McDonald's has sort-of-reasonable vegetarian menu options.

And this is the best time to keep the momentum going. In this spirit, I signed up to participate in Blog Action Day, in which thousands of bloggers will dedicate today—October 15—to blogging about the environment. I'm not sure how many animals or trees any of this will save—but there's no harm in trying.

So here's my theme for today: how suburban birders can save the environment! (Short answer: very slowly.)

But seriously: any time you go into a neighborhood park with binoculars, you're going to attract attention. Turn those weird stares and questions ("What are you looking at?" "Why is everyone looking into that tree?") into teachable moments. Give a skeptical onlooker a peek through your scope or binoculars.

Don't take common birds for granted—remember that even routine species such as Spotted Towhees and Common Yellowthroats are pretty darn cool-looking, and anyone who's curious enough to ask you about birds will find them pretty amazing. (And they are—I always try to remind myself of this at the end of my failed rarities chases.)

Remember, sex and violence sell. If you see a raptor or a Great Blue Heron catching and eating its prey, be sure to point it out to every 10-year-old boy within earshot. They LOVE this stuff! If you catch birds mating in the spring, show all the adults—the kids will tag along and figure it out for themselves.

The goal of this is not to recruit more birders, but to sell the wonders of the natural world. People who are aware of the rich diversity of bird life even in relatively developed areas are more likely to respect the need for environmental safeguards.

My hope is that someday, natural diversity in an area will become a standard indicator of quality of life, just as distance to shopping areas and good schools is now. In a twisted way, this is already happening: check out the signs on the fencing around the new housing development on the bluffs of Bolsa Chica:

It should be noted that this sign was readable from the INSIDE of the Bolsa Chica reserve; the area fenced off was the housing development that the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, among others, fought in vain to stop. What sensitive environment was being protected here? I guess they have to make sure that enviroment stays nice and sterile so none of the minivan moms get dead leaves on their shoes—or God forbid, encounter any of the actual residents of Bolsa Chica, such as this critter:

And this is another risk the environmental movement faces: right now, it's trendy to be green. And people with less than honorable intentions are exploiting this to our peril.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Canyon Park and Banning Ranch

Pacific-slope Flycatcher at Canyon Park

A few weeks ago, Glenn was honored to have a couple of his photos selected for the 2008 Wings Over Bolsa Chica calendar. Besides the honor of knowing his photographic skills are helping a worthy cause, he got a number of free calendars (our Christmas shopping is done!), and was invited to the monthly meeting of the Bolsa Chica Land Trust, along with the other selected photographers, for the unveiling of the calendar.

At the meeting were representatives of another worthy group endorsed by the Bolsa Chica Land Trust: Save Banning Ranch.

Banning Ranch is the big plot of land hugging the southern bank of the Santa Ana River mouth, tucked between Huntington Beach and Costa Mesa. It was/is an oil field, filled with rusty derricks in various stages of (non)functionality. These are frequently topped with resting Osprey, White-tailed Kites, or Loggerheaded Shrikes—I know this because I run and bird frequently along the banks of the Santa Ana River.

Banning Ranch is privately owned, and its owners have hatched various nefarious plots of filling the space with yet another hotel and shopping center. (The most recent of these was quashed by local governments concerned about traffic.)

The Save Banning Ranch group has a better plan: the area is already home to a number of threatened birds and other animals. It's surrounded on all sides by parks (Talbert Nature Reserve to the east, Canyon Park in Costa Mesa to the south, and Huntington State Beach (and the Least Tern/Snowy Plover preserve) to the west. These areas are all popular with hikers and bikers—why not make Banning Ranch a part of this? It would restore some much-needed wetlands, and provide opportunities for outdoor recreation and natural history education to a community that badly needs it.

And all we have to do is rally up public support and find several bazillion dollars to buy the land at fair market value before it turns into yet another Triangle Square!

Glenn and I were on board immediately: we have a soft spot for both hopeless causes and long birding walks from Talbert to the beach. Glenn promised one of their representatives that he'd send him some bird photos he'd taken in the area, and then decided that he wanted more.

This is where our weekend birding began.

Our plan was to park in Fairview Park, which adjoins Talbert Nature Reserve, then walk through Talbert and down to the beach. The parking lot at Fairview was full, so we headed instead to nearby Canyon Park off 19th Street in Costa Mesa: we knew that it also connected to the bike trail along the river, and we had heard that it was a good birding spot as well.

The park was quiet when we first passed though, early on Saturday morning. We headed towards the beach, hoping to see the Reddish Egret that I'd been seeing there fairly regularly—no dice. The Banning Ranch area was also uncharacteristically quiet, which bummed me out—I kept telling Glenn about all the fun stuff I'd been seeing there, and the one time I get him out there with his tripod and big lens, all we could find were a few House Wrens and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. Glenn took a few shots of a Brown Pelican sitting in the spot where the Reddish Egret normally hangs out, and we headed upriver to Talbert.

In Talbert, we saw a short aerial battle between an American Kestrel and a Cooper's Hawk, as well as a late Ash-throated Flycatcher. At one point, I was buzzed insistently by one of those big, iridescent green beetles—I don't know what they are called. Glenn had been wanting a photo of one of these for a while, but they rarely ever land—so he insisted that I stand still so the thing would land on me and he could finally get a shot. The bug was content to stay on my hat even when I took it off:

Our luck improved when we headed back to Canyon Park: we were delighted to find the park filled with unusually bold warblers: Yellow-rumped, Wilson's, Townsend's, Orange-crowned, and Black-throated Greys were everywhere, and some let us get quite close. Also numerous and bold were Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Western Wood-Pewees, White-crowned Sparrows, and Anna's and Allen's/Rufous Hummingbirds. A couple of Warbling Vireos and Red-shouldered Hawks were also in the mix.

I couldn't wait to go back this morning: if we had seen all that just after noon after four hours of trekking, what else would we find first thing in the morning, now that we knew where to look?

The answer: Nearly nothing. The gusty winds kept most of the birds hunkered out of sight, and we headed home after only about half an hour.

But our long Saturday walk made me realize how many great birding spots there are within (long) walking distance of our place. And if the fight to preserve Banning Ranch is won, things will only get better.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Snowbirds Return

Right now, I appreciate my time outdoors with birds more than ever. School started up again, and I'm teaching a ginormous, pathologically overenrolled general ed course, and, as I've been telling my friends, currently have more teaching assistants than I had students in some of my classes last year. And I've found that talking into a microphone to 400 people isn't nearly as scary as trying to figure out what to do with the 50-plus people on the wait list for my class, each of whom absolutely must take it this term in order to graduate in time. Aaargh!

Okay, back to the birds. Saturday morning, I woke up early, determined to find some cool migrant warblers. Glenn was recovering from some gnarly oral surgery, so it was just me again. I went back to Huntington Central Park, since I knew that Blackpoll Warblers and both American and Painted Redstarts had been seen there over the past week. Alas, I found none of these. But I did get to see some old winter friends again for the first time of the season: Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-crowned Sparrows, and a huge number of Townsend's Warblers. I also found a Hermit Thrush (with a very obviously reddish tail and grey flanks) flying out of the island and into a nearby thicket of bushes.

Saturday afternoon, I birded Talbert Nature Reserve and the bike path along the Santa Ana River between Talbert and Huntington State Beach. No interesting warblers (save something that could only have been an exceptionally large Yellow Warbler—bright yellow, dull wings, no eyering/eyeline, thin bill), but lots of other good stuff—a pair of Ospreys, a pair (male and female) of Northern Harriers, a juvenile Cooper's Hawk, lots of White-crowned Sparrows (again, the first I've seen there this season)). The most notable bird of the outing was the Reddish Egret I've been seeing there fairly regularly over the past few weeks—this time, I brought my little camera, and actually got a photo of the bird!

Yes, I know this is lame. (Glenn saw it and promised to set me up with one of his old cameras and a decent lens.) The bird was actually much closer to me than it appears in this photo.

This afternoon, I dragged Glenn out of the house to San Joaquin marsh—a very different place from last week. The river running parallel to Riparian View was nearly dry and free of birds (last week it was flooded and filled with dozens of herons and egrets), and the first two ponds by the front of the reserve had been drained. Still, there were a number of White Pelicans in Pond C, a Spotted Sandpiper and a Sora in Pond D, Redheads in Pond 1, and a pair of White-tailed Kites in the back area.

San Joaquin wasn't as birdy as I would have liked, but there's always something peaceful and sweet about being out there on an autumn Sunday afternoon. The air smells of sage, and the sun seems to hit the trees—now just turning from green to yiellow and red—differently than the rest of the year. No matter what East Coast expats say, there are definitely seasons in Southern California. If you can't tell from the angle of the sunlight off the trees, you can tell from the birds.

Monday, September 24, 2007


Sometimes birds can make you miserable.

My friends and family think I'm a pretty gung-ho birder, but there are still whole classes of birds I know nothing about, and even worse, whole classes of birds I haven't ever seen. And I have been determined to correct this situation.

So, when the summer Wandering Tattler came out and listed a pelagic trip among its upcoming field trips, I signed us up. Finally, I'll get to see cute little alcids and exotic shearwaters for myself! At last, someone will finally tell me how 'pelagic' is supposed to be pronounced!

We got our reservations, signed our waivers, downloaded some helpful articles sent along by the trip organizers, and I mentally prepared myself to handle my repulsion at waking up before 5 a.m. and my low-level fear of boats (augmented by a recent re-reading of A Perfect Storm). On Saturday, September 29, I'd be ready!

One small catch: The trip isn't on the 29th. It was on the 22nd. Which was LAST Saturday.


Once I realized this—around 8 a.m. on Saturday, a couple hours after the boat had left without us, I was heartbroken. We had been looking forward to this for months. And missing out was nobody's fault but our own. I selfishly hoped the trip would be rescheduled because of the rain, but I knew this wouldn't happen. Crap!!!

Still, we managed to console ourselves with the pleasures of fall migration on land. We took advantage of a break in the rain to visit Huntington Central Park, which was filled with really bright Wilson's Warblers. We also found a Swainson's Thrush and got a quick look at the American Redstart in 'the island' before the rain resumed.

On Saturday afternoon, after the storm had passed, we went to San Joaquin marsh. In the reeds lining the edge of Pond D, we spotted a Least Bittern; we later heard two Least Bitterns calling each other in the pond, but couldn't see them. The front pond had been drained, and the river, which was swollen from the rain, was filled with egrets and herons. Over a dozen Black-crowned Night Herons, both adults and juveniles, were feeding in the shallows across from the parking lot, along with dozens (literally) of Snowy Egrets. These were joined by single-digit numbers of Great Egrets, Green Herons, and Great Blue Herons.

The birds were active and bold, which delighted Glenn and the other photographers exploring the marsh. He joined them at the water's edge, shooting away for hours.

On your marks, get set...GO!

Sunday morning was gorgeous, so I went back to Huntington Central again while Glenn slept in. Both birds and birders were out in full force—a lot of familiar faces were out there. The Wilson's Warblers were still going strong, along with a few Yellow Warblers. I also saw several Western Wood Pewees, and had a quick view of what looked like a Warbling Vireo (slim, greenish-beige, strong white eyeline).

The various little clusters of birders were spreading news of the sighting of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak near the island, but no one I had talked to had actually seen it—they just heard that somebody did. I didn't find it, either.

But the American Redstart was seen by several people—but today, not by me. But I did get to see the Northern Waterthrush, which was foraging in the underbrush of the northern edge of the island.

So I didn't get any lifers this weekend. As a great Englishman once said, "You can't always get what you want." But I still got some pretty good birds—and that's all that I need.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Points North (Part 2)

Morro Rock at sunset

The Central Coast town of Paso Robles is known for only one thing: wine. It has some nice Victorian architecture and pleasant weather, but all of this is in service to the acres of vineyards surrounding the town, and the tourists who come to taste the local vintages.

Since we were now tourists in Paso Robles, and planning on spending the morning there before taking off for San Francisco, we did the logical thing: we birded the town's historic central park. No stinkin' Merlot for us!

(Our reasons for not indulging were purely logistical: none of the tasting rooms opened until 10:30, we were planning on leaving town at noon, and neither of us relished the idea of drinking right before a 3-hour drive.)

The mature oaks in the central park yielded Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, and yet more Bushtits and Chestnut-backed Chickadees. Even stone sober, we had great fun watching the reactions of others passing through the park: Why is that dude pointing a camera into that stupid tree? And what is she looking at with those binoculars?

Better than booze: A White-breasted Nuthatch in Paso Robles

It made me glad we didn't have kids; they would have been unspeakably embarrassed.

Our stay in San Francisco was great fun, and worthy of a break from birding. Favorite rhetorical party question posed by my sister: Are you a pie or a cake? My new favorite rhetorical question: If your Patronus were a bird, what bird would it be? (My brother-in-law chose an excellent bird I had never heard of: a Bower Bird.)

On the way down the coast, we stopped at our favorite secret place to find a Central Coast specialty, the Yellow-billed Magpie. If you've ever driven to San Luis Obispo, you've seen the place: the rest stop a few miles from Camp Roberts, on the southbound side of the 101: the Magpies like to hang out near the oaks in there and eat junk food left behind by travellers.

Our southbound Central Coast stop was Morro Bay. At Morro State Park, we saw a pair of Peregrine Falcons hunting, our first White-crowned Sparrows of the season, and a flock of Lesser Yellowlegs (about 7) feeding near the marina. I had never seen so many of these together before.

I had heard that the campground at Morro State Park was a good place to look for migrants, and it was. On Monday morning, we returned to the park for a few hours before returning to Orange County. Glenn went back to the beach to get some sunrise shots of the sandpipers and pelicans, and I explored the campground. There, I saw Hermit Warblers, as well as Townsend's Warblers, more Chestnut-backed Chickadees—and my second life sighting of a Brown Creeper.

I felt simultaneously sad, mad, and smug that Glenn wasn't there. Sad because he missed the pleasure of what would have been a lifer for him. Mad I couldn't get my little point-and-shoot camera out of my purse in time to get a shot of the Creeper. And smug because I got to see it while Glenn was off taking his billionth perfectly composed money shot of a Western Sandpiper. Ha, ha!

Alas, we could only bird for a couple of hours before heading home—we wanted to be sure to beat the rush-hour traffic when returning to OC. We wished our vacation could have been longer—but who doesn't?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Points North (Part 1)

We finally got around to taking a real summer vacation: we took advantage of a longstanding open invitation to visit my sister and brother-in-law in San Francisco, and turned the trip into three days of Central Coast birding broken up by two days of wine, food, and scintillating conversation in the Bay Area. (They know us all too well—their longstanding bribe to get us to visit: "We've got a lot of weird birds in our yard!")

We planned to break up the 7-hour drive to San Francisco by stopping overnight both coming and going, and birding along the way. Before leaving, I e-mailed the Morro Coast Audubon Society to ask about good mid-September birding spots on our route, and was pointed to Oso Flaco Lake and Oceano Lagoon—both lovely spots we probably wouldn't have found on our own.

Oso Flaco Lake in particular is an undiscovered gem. To get to it, one has to travel several miles along a nearly unused portion of Highway 1, though a tiny farming town whose buildings apparently haven't been painted or altered since Steinbeck's time. From this isolated stretch of highway, you then have to drive three miles along a 'street' that's basically a service road cut through the center of a field.

Just when you conclude that both Mapquest and Morro Coast Audubon have totally screwed up, there it is: a tiny parking lot manned by friendly rangers, and a narrow path leading to the treasures within.

The first part of the path cuts through a shady wooded area loud with the squeaks and twitters of birds. A Black-and-white Warbler had been spotted there the week before, but I couldn't find it. A lot of the calls and songs I heard were unfamiliar, so I knew the area was filled with potential lifers—but the foliage was so thick it was difficult to find any of the birds that were so obviously nearby. The only birds we managed to nail down definitively were a Downy Woodpecker, a Song Sparrow, and a Townsend's Warbler.

Further along, the woods gave way to a large lagoon, and the path became a boardwalk crossing the widest part of the lake. No sooner had we taken our first steps onto the boardwalk than we heard a commotion underfoot: a Sora and a Virginia Rail dashing out from under the boardwalk into some nearby reeds.

To add to the fun, a pair of young raccoons was also lurking in the area.

On the other side of the lake, the path wound through sand dunes and sage scrub, and ended at a prisine, viritually unpopulated beach that housed (yet another) Least Tern and Snowy Plover breeding area. Dozens of pelicans swooped along the shore in straight lines, and gulls and sandpipers preened attractively in front of Glenn's camera.

This was all very nice, but I had yet to see anything I couldn't see back home. Driving four hours to gaze at Willets feels a little like landing in Paris and finding out the only restaurant open is McDonald's.

But this was about to change. About 10 miles up the coast was Oceano Lagoon, our second spot of the day. There, we followed a tree-shaded path lined with prodigious quantities of poison ivy, and encountered dozens of warblers: Common Yellowthroats, Wilson's, Townsend's, and a Nashville Warbler were all darting through the trees and bushes.

Even better, we found our first not-available-in-Orange-County bird: a Chestnut-backed Chickadee, or rather, several of them, mingling with the local Bushtits.

We were soon to find that Chestnut-backed Chickadees were almost as common as Bushtits up there, but no matter. They were novelties to us, and cool-looking little buggers too.

We ended the day in Paso Robles, where dinner and a room in a historic hotel awaited us. This left us with the dilemma of what to hunt for in the morning: Cabernet, chickadees, or an ungodly mixture of both?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Maybe I Won't Go for a Swim Right Now

My apartment complex features a system of tasteful artificial streams, which are the year-round home to a flock of Mallards. But every fall, the Mallards seem to be attracted to the swimming pool. I have no idea why—but here they are.

The pool is really too short to do laps in, anyhow.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

"You Saw a Lucy's Warbler? Well, Isn't That Nice!"

I got a lifer this weekend, with the help of Robert McNab—a Lucy's Warbler. (He describes the sighting in detail here.) But this treat was overshadowed by the realization that some people think I'm crazy.

My adventures began on Saturday morning at Laguna Niguel Regional Park. Glenn had decided to sleep in, so it was just me, sans big camera for documentation shots. I camped out as usual by the fenced-off area near the entrance of the park, which was—just as I had hoped—filled with birds.

The catch was most of them were in their aggravatingly neutral fall/immature coloring, and none of them would stop moving—the air was filled with little feathered blurs zooming from tree to tree, three stories overhead, or darting furtively in and out of thick clusters of vegetation. Keeping the birds in my sights was like playing some crazed shoot-em-up video game ratcheted up to the highest level of difficulty—a moment's lapse in concentration, and whatever it was I was looking at would be gone.

After much effort, I managed to ID a Common Yellowthroat and a juvenile Lazuli Bunting, both of which managed to stay perched in one spot for about 3 seconds each. Laguna Niguel during fall migration is definitely a double-black-diamond birding spot—endless potential for thrills combined with endless opportunities to wipe out.

Then it occurred to me that birding spots ought to be coded, like ski runs, so birders of various levels of ambition and expertise will know what they're getting themselves into. Places with lots of big, slow-moving, boldly patterned critters easily viewable with the naked eye (like the front ponds of San Joaquin marsh) would get green circles. Places with a slightly more challenging array of birds and environments would get blue squares. And so on.

As I contemplated this, I ran into Robert, who told me about his recent sightings of the possible Lucy's Warbler. As he started describing it to me, we saw a tiny gray bird zoom into a nearby tree. I noticed it was grayish with no streaking, and had no eye ring, but I had no clue what it was.

"That's it!" Robert exclaimed, and the chase was on. The bird hopped around in the tree and in a few nearby trees for the next several minutes, as we tried to take in as many of its details as we could. It was definitely a warbler, and definitely smaller than the Yellow and Orange-crowned Warblers in the same trees.

It stayed high off the ground, making it impossible to see its rump or the top of its head, but we managed to put together a pretty good picture of the rest of it. I was both sorry that Glenn and his big lens weren't there, and relieved: this is precisely the sort of scenario that pisses photographers off to no end.

After the bird took off, I birded alone for another couple of hours. Then I ran into a vaguely-familiar looking pair of birders, who greeted me by name. (I'm terrible with names and faces—something I make a point of warning my students about at the beginning of each term.) The female member of the pair asked me what birds I had seen, and I told her.

"Oh, you saw a Lucy's Warbler? Well, isn't that nice!" she said sweetly. Then—this is weird—she patted me on the head! "Nice seeing you again, dear."


Let's deconstruct this: I'm tall for a woman (almost 5'7); she was a bit shorter than me. Patting me on the head, therefore, was not an ergonomically convenient gesture for her. She had to have made a conscious decision to do this. But why? Did she think that finding a Lucy's Warbler was a total no-brainer at Laguna Niguel? Did she not believe me? Or did she just think I was weird and scary for some other reason?

This bothered me for the rest of the afternoon. Not even a gorgeous sunset and the discovery of three Black Oystercatchers at Crystal Cove could raise me out of my funk. "Am I really that weird?" I lamented to Glenn.

"Well, yes."

"No, really."

"Well, you can be a bit...enthusiastic."

This was ironic. Normally, I'm the most introverted, unexpressive person alive. The only time I knowingly overcompensate for this is when I'm teaching: teaching large lecture classes in an obscure and technical academic field is essentially like doing a long sales pitch, and teaching large groups effectively means throwing yourself headlong into the material with evangelical fervor. And I was throwing myself into the birds of Laguna Niguel the same way I normally throw myself at, say, the relation between c-command and the distribution of negative polarity items.

Then I realized I care as much about birds as the stuff I'm actually paid to think about.

The difference was my current audience didn't have 4 units riding on their weekend bird sightings. So they didn't feel obliged to even pretend to be polite to me. And I couldn't get my revenge by flunking them out.

But as they walked away, I noticed that between the two of them, both apparently serious birders, they had only one pair of binoculars. NOW who's crazy?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Summer Vacation, Fall Migration

This morning I decided to play hooky, and headed out to Huntington Central Park. There, fall migration was on in full force: warblers were everywhere. I spotted my first Townsend's and Black-throated Grays of the season, along with several Wilson's Warblers and endless flocks of Orange-crowned Warblers and Common Yellowthroats.

I returned to the fig tree by the island, where Glenn and I had spent some time over the weekend, and it was even birdier than before. About half a dozen Black-headed Grosbeaks, most immature, were flitting in and out, pecking away at ripe figs. Western Tanagers, Bullock's Orioles, House Finches, and a Nuttall's Woodpecker also darted in and out.

On this outing, I also experimented with the little point-and-shoot camera Glenn got me for Christmas: I don't think I'll ever want or need a lens the size of a shoulder-mounted missile launcher, but I do want to be able to get simple documentary shots of birds I see when Glenn is not around. And today I did! Well, sort of:

There are two Black-headed Grosbeaks in this tree! No, really!

Not far away from the fig tree, a Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a bare branch in the middle of the island—contemplating, perhaps, a snack of fattened grosbeak with fig relish? In any case, the birds in the fig tree didn't seen terribly worried.

A few other birders were in the area, and one of them—a friendly older gentleman—showed me a Nutmeg Mannikin nest. It was a large flattish ball of woven grass, with an opening at its bottom. We didn't see any birds coming in or out, but he said he had seen some there earlier in the week.

I didn't see a huge number of birds, but this was the most fun day of birding I've had in a while. When I finally left the park around 1:00, I had that totally great, mellow feeling—kind of like the feeling you get when leaving a spa after a long massage.

Warblers as therapy—you heard it here first.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Labored Days

                         This Oriole survived the Civil War!

This weekend's sticky heat ruined my plan for three back-to-back marathon birding days, but we managed to get some quality birding in anyways. We limited most of our outings to the peripheries of the day and spent our late mornings/early afternoons hunkered down indoors.

On Saturday morning, we went by Huntington Central Park to see if any fall migrants were passing through. We stayed near 'the island' behind the library, which was quite active: a fig tree near the edge of the water was a popular feeding spot for orioles (I admit, I'm not sure if the one pictured above is a Hooded or a Bullock's), Western Tanagers, and a pair of Black-headed Grosbeaks. Nearby, Nutmeg Mannikins were picking LONG blades of grass (well over a foot in length) and flying off with them.

I also spotted a Wilson's Warbler and some other warbler I couldn't identify—it seemed to be solid grey on the top, with a yellow breast and white belly. Perhaps the Northern Parula spotted last week? Or more likely, a female Common Yellowthroat that happened to look grey on top because it was in the shade? Alas, too far away for me to tell—and too far away for Glenn to photograph.

We were lucky to see as many birds as we did, as the park was filled with flocks of other strange birds:

           The South will rise again! (At 1:30 and 4:00 Saturday and Sunday)

Apparently, this humongous Civil War reinactment is held yearly in HCP. Someone in a hoopskirt asked Glenn, in a fake Southern accent, if he was there to photograph the battle. It wasn't our original plan, but those guys are a lot easier to shoot than warblers.

Sunday afternoon, we went back to San Joaquin marsh to see if we could re-find the American Bittern that Glenn had spotted and photographed during one of his after-work trips last week. We couldn't find it, but we heard a Least Bittern, and saw three Soras. The Solitary Sandpiper from last week was still there, as were the Nutmeg Mannikins and Orange Bishops:

Today, we got up at the crack of dawn to meet one of Glenn's photographer pals at Crystal Cove. We got there shortly before 7, and spotted a couple of California Thrashers on the trail out of the parking lot. On the beach, where the guys spent the morning shooting, we saw Black and Ruddy Turnstones, Sanderlings, Black-bellied Plovers, Heerman's and Western Gulls, Brown Pelicans, and not much else. But the beach was gorgeous and (for the first few hours) cool.

And I really couldn't ask for much more than that.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Five Dumb Things Said About Birds

Your taxes allow this wild creature to poop on your head!

Last night was the end-of-season potluck barbeque for all us Least Tern Reserve volunteers. We grilled big hunks of meat and shared desserts and horror stories as the sun set over Huntington State Beach. A great time was had by all.

Among the goodies we received were a compilation of the top volunteer observations and public comments over the season. ("June 1: 12 Willets, 10 surfers, couple having sex, several Marbled Godwits..."). The public comments were, well...interesting. On one hand, they made me realize how deeply needed our work on the reserve was. On the other hand, they made me realize that there is a scary level of ignorance about birds out there. Even worse than the ignorance about birds is the outright hostility I've seen towards those of us who do actually care about the natural world.

So here is my list (in increasing order of dumbness) of the five dumbest things I've heard people say about birds and birding, both in the Least Tern Reserve and out. (Some of these I didn't actually hear, but other Reserve volunteers did.) Be very afraid...!

5. (said by a cyclist in the Upper Newport Bay) "If I wanted to watch birds, I'd watch the Discovery Channel."

4. (said by former coworkers) "You go out and watch birds? You must get a lot of poop on your head."

3. (said to a volunteer at the Least Tern Reserve) "I'm tired of my tax dollars going to save endangered species!"

2. (said to a volunteer at the Least Tern Reserve) "You mean to tell me there are WILD BIRDS here on a PUBLIC BEACH?!"

1. (said by an adult during a tour of the San Joaquin Nature Reserve): "Wait—ducks can fly?"

Monday, August 27, 2007

Fall Is Here, and It's Time To Get Schooled

The Northern Shovelers are back! Time to hit the books!

Labor Day is almost here and they're selling tweed again at the malls, but I've refused to believe that summer is over. How could summer be over? My fall teaching doesn't start up again until the end of September, and the birding around here, for the most part, has still been sucky.

But this weekend, the sighting of some early fall migrants made me finally face reality.

My first autumn-ish sighting was at Starbucks on Saturday morning, as Glenn waited to get his latte before we headed back to Laguna Niguel Regional Park: a former student of mine perkily brewing up stimulants for the sleepy masses. "OHMIGOD IT'S YOU HOW HAVE YOU BEEN?!" he screamed over the loud gurgle of steaming milk.

He was one of my best students, but seeing him again made the sloth in me shudder. Fall is here. Time to start writing syllabi again. Actually, time to get my department to finally decide which !*&%$ classes I'll be teaching so I can start writing syllabi again. Blah.

On the upside, fall means more birds. At Laguna Niguel, we saw the same assortment of birds we saw last week—Wilson's and Yellow Warblers, Bullock's Orioles, Nutmeg Mannikins, Warbling Vireos, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, a Pacific-slope Flycatcher and something we thought could be a Cassin's Vireo. Or maybe not:

What is this?

On Sunday, an afternoon trip to San Joaquin revealed the return of the winter ducks: Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teals were mingling with the Mallards and Cinnamon Teals. We circled the back ponds in search of the "Least Bittern Fest" reported on the list by the Audubon House earlier in the week. The ongoing Bittern party was audible but not visible—we heard several of them calling from the reeds edging the ponds, but saw nary a one.

Just when we were about to give up and head home, we ran into a local birding force of nature in the parking lot. (I'm not sure if she'd like to have her name plastered here, so I'm leaving it out.) The Force of Nature asked us what we'd seen and we ended up trailing in her wake, flabbergasted, for the next 3 hours, as she pointed out random specks that turned out to be Orioles and Tanagers and little dots in the distance that turned out to be Orange Bishops and Soras and Spotted Sandpipers and....

Did all those critters just show up when she did, or did we just miss them during our first pass through the marsh? Most likely the latter...

It definitely pays to hang with people who know more than you. The Force of Nature not only pointed out tons of stuff we probably would have missed, but tossed out dozens of useful tips: for instance, flocks of bushtits may contain Chickadees and Warblers during migration and thus should not be overlooked; and that weird song that I was sure belonged to some exotic migrating sparrow species actually belonged to a young Song Sparrow still trying to acquire the adult lingo. I felt smarter just listening to her.

But I also felt dumb—this made me realize how little I actually know about birds.

Back at Starbucks, my old student told me he had been given permission to take a graduate-level course in the area in which I had taught him last year. This was exceptional, as our department is wary of letting undergrads contaminate its graduate program. And the class that I had him in was one most of our majors hate. Maybe I don't totally suck as a teacher after all! Woohoo!

And it's definitely time for me to get back into my fall mode again. I generally focus my summers on two areas: (1) my academic research/writing and (2) sloth. And area 2.5: birds. Fall means a transition back from being a student to being a teacher, from sucking up information to sharing it.

It might just be fun.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Sustainable Kitchen Is Just a Keg Away!

I've just come to realize that there's no way one can be a dedicated birder without being a dedicated environmentalist: if you care about birds, you have to care about how your actions affect the lives and well-being of birds. Anyone who goes on some rarities chase in a Hummer while leaving all the lights and appliances on at their Irvine McMansion is in serious denial at best and is a gross hypocrite at worst.

Granted, there is some minor sacrifice involved in adopting a greener lifestyle (such as the tiny effort of sorting and recycling one's trash—just suck it up and do it already!) But worry not, it's not all sackcloth and ashes for bird lovers: as a recent posting on observes, one environmentally-friendly lifestyle change involves getting your beer in a keg instead of in bottles or cans!

Bottoms up!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Birding Meme

I found this meme—a list of questions for birders—on Cogresha's birding blog. Don't look at it; it'll put my blog to shame. Okay, go ahead—you'll like it, I promise.

Here are my answers to Cogresha's thought-provoking questions. I'm curious as to how others would answer these—feel free to share your thoughts!

Questions for Birders

1. What is the coolest bird you have seen from your home?

My most memorable at-home sighting was my very first sighting of a Townsend's Warbler about a year and a half ago, just after I started getting into birds. There I was, coming home from some errand and right in front of me appeared this amazing black-and-yellow bird unlike any I had ever seen before. It was the most exotic-looking little bird I had ever seen in the wild. At that time, I had no idea that such cool birds could exist in my lame little suburb. Now I know that Townsend's Warblers are regular winter visitors here, but I still get a buzz whenever I see one.

2. If you compose lists of bird species seen, what is your favorite list and why?

I've only recently started keeping formal lists of my sightings, as I wrote about here. For me, the only thing better than the happy memories of past birding trips is the anticipation of upcoming ones. So I'll answer this the same way Frank Lloyd Wright responded when asked what his favorite building was: "My next one."

3. What sparked your interest in birds?

What turned me into an official birder was my training routine for the Orange County Marathon. I did all my long training runs through Talbert Nature Reserve, and down to the mouth of the Santa Ana River. I only allowed myself to stop running if I was in life-threatening pain, or if something really unusual showed up. The race would have gone better if I hadn't chosen such a birdy training ground: during my long runs, I had my first sightings of a Black Skimmer, and my first local sighting of a Bald Eagle. I ended up taking a lot of walking breaks.

4. If you could only bird in one place for the rest of your life, where would it be and why?

I'm not touching this one with a ten-foot pole—may none of us ever have to make this choice!

5. Do you have a jinx bird? And why is it jinxed?

No jinx bird—just a lot I haven't seen yet, and a lot I'd like to see better.

6. Who is your favorite birder, and why?

I'm in no way qualified to judge who has the best ornithological credentials. But I am in deep awe of my first (and so far, only) official birding instructor, Sylvia Gallagher. Not only does she teach birding classes at every level, several days a week; she writes about our local birds and does bird embroidery that's mind-boggling (anatomical detail that rivals Sibley's drawings— in silk thread!). She's also politically active and active in our local Audubon chapter. And she's a great—and demanding—teacher. I noted with glee that an intermediate-level birding class offered by a neighboring chapter covered some of the same topics we slaved over in Sylvia's BEGINNING birding class. To her, if you can tell a penguin from an ostrich, you can surely distinguish a Cassin's from a Western Kingbird!

7. Do you tell non-birders you are a birder? What do they say to you when they find out?

Absolutely, if there's an opening for in in the conversation—I think of it as "birding evangelism": the more people who can be engaged in the natural world and made sensitive to its needs, the better. Most non-birders are politely curious about it; a typical response is to say they have an uncle/boss/neighbor who's really into birds. Quite a few also ask bird ID questions (e.g. "I saw this big yellow bird in my back yard; what do you think it was?"). If people aren't interested, of course I'll change the subject.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hot Days and Cool Birds

The Least Tern breeding season is over, and Glenn and I have completed our minor role in sheparding the next generation of yappy little dive-bombers into adulthood. I'll miss those mornings on the beach, watching the little chicks grow into fledglings, and the fledglings learning the hunting and flying skills of adults. What I'll miss less is the behavior of human adults and their often less-than-sympathetic attitudes towards sharing the beach with any creature that doesn't surf. Grrr.

So on Saturday morning, instead of the cool of the beach, we faced down the heat and humidity of Laguna Niguel Regional Park (or, as the synthesized voice on Glenn's GPS unit inexplicably calls it, "Laguna Niguel Regional Pennsylvania". Huh?). Because of the heat, Glenn didn't feel like carrying his camera and big lens very far, so we stayed near the bottom of the park and birded the fenced-off area near the tennis courts.

Our little zone did not disappoint: it was very birdy. Among our sightings: Wilsons' Warblers, Warbling Vireos, Nutmeg Mannikins, a Nuttall's Woodpecker, and a large number of female/immature Bullock's Orioles. I'm sure there was a lot more in there to be ferreted out, as evidenced by Robert McNab's post on OC Birding on his Sunday trip to LNRP—he clearly knows a lot more about birds than I do. I definitely want to get back and spend more time there.

On Saturday afternoon, we returned to Bolsa Chica, in large part because it's by the sea, and thus cooler than inland locales. Unfortunately, every beach-goer in OC got the same idea, and we arrived at the parking lot by the footbridge only to find it completely occupied by carloads of people toting beach towels, coolers, and boogie boards (despite the "No Beach Parking" signs prominently displayed.)

So we headed instead to our much-less-convenient secret parking spot (no, I'm not saying where it is), cut down Wintersburg Channel (okay, that's your only hint) and set off.

At the tidegates, about half a dozen Black Skimmers were gliding over the water, and a number of Elegant, Caspian, and Forster's Terns were busy hunting. The water was high and clear, and we could see small sharks and skates, as well as huge schools of fish of various sizes, swimming right at the water's edge. It reminded me that it's about time I took a scuba refresher course.

Our most notable sighting at Bolsa Chica was a female Red-breasted Merganser swimming by the tidegates. We see them there regularly during the winter, but this was the first time I've seen one there during the summer.

We stayed late, since Glenn wanted to take photos of the terns and skimmers at sunset. While he shot away, I wandered down Wintersburg Channel to look for sandpipers. We had decided not to chase the Buff-breasted Sandpiper (for some reason, I felt pessimistic about our chances of seeing it, and Glenn hates shooting at Harriet Wieder Park), but I wanted to see something other than terns and Mallards. In the marshy area west of the channel, I spotted several Lesser Yellowlegs, Western Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Semipalmated Plovers.

We were racing against the dark as we headed back to our car. As we strode down the path along the channel, we saw a flock of Canada Geese fly down and land in the lagoon across the channel from us. In the bean field, we saw a very bold coyote who didn't seem to mind as Glenn took numerous flash photos of him.

By time we got home, it was already 8:30 p.m.

Sunday morning was occupied by work-related stuff (for me), so no birding until late afternoon. We went to Crystal Cove, where we spotted a Roadrunner on the path in front of us, on the bluff right by our parking area. It took off just before Glenn could get a shot of it. On the beach, we saw Black Turnstones, Ruddy Turnstones, Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, and California, Western, and Heerman's Gulls.

Nothing mind-blowing, but a day at the beach is never anything to complain about.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Better Birding Through Technology

It's never too late to fulfill your New Year's resolutions. Mine was inspired by Kimball Garrett's presentation at the Sea and Sage Audubon pancake breakfast last fall: he encouraged birders to log in their sightings on eBird, a great site hosted by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The awesomeness of eBird comes in two flavors. First, it gives individual users an electronic record of all their sightings (which can be sorted and analyzed in a number of ways). Second, and more importantly, the collective input from users forms a huge database on bird distribution and population patterns. For obvious reasons, this information is of great interest to ornithologists.

I won't go into why it's taken me 10 months to get around to setting up an eBird account (it's free), but I finally did. The site is easy and fun to use; you just indicate where and when you birded, check off what you saw, and the program adds up the numbers for you. Very cool.

I faithfully submitted lists for all four of my weekend forays (to the Least Tern Reserve at Huntington State Beach, Bolsa Chica, Talbert Nature Reserve, and San Joaquin) and came up with a total of 59 birds. Not a Big Weekend by any stretch of the imagination, but respectable for a couple of lazy summer days out. Four outings sounds like a lot, but it really wasn't very intense—we still managed to fit in a showing of the latest Harry Potter movie followed by dinner and microbrews at a nearby brewpub. Yum.

And over dinner, we realized that we hadn't done the dinner-and-a-movie thing in a couple of years, since our weekend afternoons and evenings as of late had been dedicated to (1) birding, (2) recovering from birding and/or downloading Glenn's new bird photos, or (3) going to bed early in preparation for the next day's birding excursion.

But while wandering the wilds of South Coast Plaza before the film, we noticed some fledgling House Sparrrows being fed muffin crumbs by their parents outside Starbucks. No, I didn't log this sighting on eBird.

My favorite sightings of the weekend:

—Black-bellied Plovers in full breeding plumage at Huntington and Bolsa Chica,

— A banded juvenile Peregrine Falcon at Bolsa Chica,

There's no such thing as too many Peregrine Falcon shots

—Blue-gray and California Gnatcatchers only a few steps away from each other at Talbert. Both were pretty bold, and let me get close enough to see the white undersides of their tails: black for the California, and white for the Blue-gray. And the male California Gnatcatchers still had their telltale black caps.

—A Sora and what I'm pretty sure was a Least Bittern at San Joaquin (another birder nearby also thought it was a bittern, which reduces the chance that I was hallucinating).

Oh yeah—the owls in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" looked really fake.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Birding Alone

Solitary birding can be either a huge rush or a frustrating pain in the butt. One one hand, I love it because it's fantastically soul-cleansing and relaxing, and it gives me the freedom to obsess over favorite places and birds without worrying about boring anyone.

On the other hand, there's something sad about seeing something really cool and having nobody to share it with. It's kind of like opening your Christmas presents by yourself. Then there's the problem of seeing something neat and unusual and having nobody believe you. I hate it when birds pull that Mr. Snuffleupagus routine.

And they tend to do that a lot.

Yesterday, they were having quite a time of it. Early yesterday morning, I ran a few short laps around Tanager Park in Costa Mesa. It's a tiny park, and a good spot to find Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Western Bluebirds, but it hasn't been very birdy as of late. But as I circled the park, I noticed a large, stocky, short-tailed bird on the lawn near some playground equipment: a Red-shouldered Hawk. It stayed on the ground briefly, then flew into one of the small trees near the footpath.

He was perched only about 7 feet off the ground, so I got a really close look at him as I ran past the tree. This surprised me, since the Red-shouldered Hawks I've seen so far have been fearful of people and seemed to perch as high off the ground as possible. Glenn has been trying since forever to get a close-up photo of one of them, but the mere sight of a camera lens 25 yards away is enough to send them flapping off into the ether.

Glenn would have loved this. But of course, he wasn't there.

After lunch, I headed to San Joaquin to give a tour of the marsh to a visiting conference group. They couldn't have chosen a worse time to look for birds: 2:30 in the afternoon in mid-August. Before we set out, I warned them that what we would see wouldn't be representative of the full diversity of bird life in the Marsh. And that it would be hot and uncomfortable.

Still, even the usual suspects in the marsh are fun to watch, and surprising and exotic to non-birders. (Every time I give a tour, I remember how beautiful and elegant-looking American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts really are.) A five-second sighting of one of the resident bobcats was an added bonus. But on the whole, the marsh was quiet, almost sterile. The trees were silent and empty....

... until after the tour ended and the conference-goers took off. After filling out the required paperwork in the Audubon House, I decided to take another spin around the marsh by myself. And of course, NOW a flock of Song Sparrows and a pair of Spotted Towhees were scratching gleefully in the middle of the path. And an Osprey was perched on a pole by the ponds near the entrance. And the female Wood Duck was back where I saw her last week. And a female Hooded Oriole was calling and jumping about in the trees in front of the Audubon House.

And there was nobody to show this to, and since I didn't bring a camera, no way of documenting it.

I hate it when this happens.