Monday, May 28, 2007

The Great Chase

Three-day weekends rock—what more could one ask for than three days of good weather and back-to-back birding?

Much of this was spent in mad pursuit of the Bay-breasted Warbler in Seagate Park. This experience made me realize (1) how friendly and helpful most birders around here are and (2) warblers sometimes make me want to rip my hair out.

Glenn and I decided to hit Seagate Park on Sunday afternoon. It didn't look promising: most of the park is a treeless expanse of manicured grass—"nature" for the minivan set—with only a small thicket of willows at its northern end.

That had to be the place.

We split up and started looking. I soon encountered another couple wearing binoculars, coming towards me on the path. "We just got a call from someone who's just seen it," they said.

"Wow, that's great," I said. I'd heard all kinds of horror stories about how competitive serious birders can be, and I didn't want them to think I was horning in on their great find—even though that's exactly what I was doing. So I passed them and kept on going.

"Wait," one of them called back, "Aren't you coming?"

We found Glenn and together entered the bushy thicket of willows—where we encountered other birders. LOTS of other birders, all with sort-of-familiar names and faces—I counted about 15 people. If someone had thought to bring along a copy of Robert's Rules of Order, Sea and Sage Audubon probably could have convened a board meeting in there.

Someone had, indeed, seen the BBWA about 15 minutes earlier. But it didn't appear again for another hour, when someone played its call. And there it was!

No wait, that's a bushtit.

Not that, the other bird right in front of it!

Suddenly, about 8 of us found ourselves clustered together like paparazzi, staring up into the canopy at a shadowy little warbler hopping about.

"Does everyone see it?" someone asked. "Anyone who can't see it, come over here and I'll show you."

I got a pretty good look at him for about 5 seconds, and Glenn managed to get a serviceable documentary photo, despite the bad light.

Heartened by this great addition to our still-tiny life lists, we decided to try our luck on the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak at Laguna Niguel Regional Park. We got there about 9:00 on Monday morning—early enough, we hoped, to beat the Memorial Day picnic crowds. One of the Seagate Park birders told me it had been singing quite actively, so I listened to sound clip of its song online before I left. This time, I was ready.

And of course, after 7 hours of dodging Frisbees and bad mariachi music, we never saw it. And once we got home, I checked Orange County Birding and saw that someone had spotted a Chestnut-sided Warbler in the park that very day—in the one part of the park we didn't think to check out. Oh yes, and the BBWA had been very well-behaved that morning, and had allowed a number of people to take stunning close-up shots of it!

Stupid bird.

By now, it was almost 5:30. What the hell—we headed back to Seagate Park and waited. And waited. Not a soul was there. Maybe everyone knew something we didn't?

The BBWA clearly didn't feel like making an encore appearance. Oh well.

Our weekend rarities chase turned out to be pretty futile, but we got some good consolation prizes. A male California Gnatcatcher in breeding plumage at Talbert Nature Reserve. A pair of Redheads at Bolsa Chica, who hadn't gotten the memo that winter is over. Blue Grosbeaks, Hooded Orioles galore, Yellow Warblers, and Western Tanagers at Laguna Niguel Regional Park. Two trees by the dam, each with its own active nest hole—one housing a family of House Wrens, the other a very noisy young male Nuttall's Woodpecker, who kept sticking his fuzzy little head out of the hole and squeaking loudly for food. We spent about an hour just watching these nests.

As Sheryl Crow's annoying little ditty said, it's not getting what you want, it's wanting what you got. And there are much worse ways to spend a Monday morning than watching a high-maintenance baby woodpecker boss his parents around.

But I still would have liked to see that grosbeak and those warblers. Darn!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I Can Mess With Endangered Birds Because I'm a Better Person than You

...or so claimed an annoying yuppie surfer I encountered yesterday morning while monitoring the Least Tern reserve. I politely asked him not to park his bike right in front of the fence facing the ocean (we docents were instructed to try to keep the area clear, since large, unfamiliar objects can stress out the birds). I also did the good parent thing and offered him an equally good alternative: chain your bike to the fence along the paved path at the north end of the reserve, like all the other bikers.

Instead, he sullenly agreed not to chain his bike to the fence around the reserve, but instead passive-aggressively parked it on the sand a foot away from the fence. Thanks, dude.

"People put stuff here all the time at night. I don't see you stopping them."
"Well, we don't have enough volunteers to be here 24/7."
"Say, what are you doing to help homeless people? I volunteer in soup kitchens. What are you doing to help the children? You know my daughter adopted a homeless man last year. She's eight."

In our capacity as badged official volunteers for the California State Parks system, we could only nod politely and walk off. But here are our unofficial, off-the-clock answers:

"Well, good for your daughter! And where does she keep this homeless guy? And what kind of job does she have that pays enough to provide food, shelter, medical care, and job training for an adult in Orange County? And of course, she's so committed to this, out of sheer personal conviction, that she would never sully the experience by say, advertising it on her private prep school applications."

"So you think that contributing a little extra to one segment of society means that rules meant to protect other parts of our world don' t apply to you? Or maybe you think philanthropic acts work like indulgences in the medieval church? Hey, maybe I can get away with double parking and running stop signs because I'M SAVING ENDANGERED BIRDS!!

Whew. Now I feel better.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Another Reason To Hate Pigeons

I don't actually hate pigeons. I've had wonderful pigeons, roasted rare and seasoned with five-spice powder at any number of good Chinese restaurants. They taste like turkey, only better.

But today I saw this disturbing article in the Los Angeles Times: a group of local pigeon fanciers has been charged with killing between 1000 and 2000 raptors a year over the last several years. They claimed that the raptors have been killing off their precious investments. One pigeon breeder said he liked to pummel the raptors he caught before killing them, because "it gets the frustration out."

As my Mexican-American friends would say, qué pendejo.

As if urban raptors aren't having a tough enough time as it is. And as an ornithologist interviewed for the article stated, "If they really did kill 2000, they killed a whole lot of birds that don't eat pigeons."

Well, I eat pigeons. And I can think of at least a few overbred pigeons out there that might make a fine entree. I've got a lot of entertaining planned for the summer, and plenty of five-spice powder in the cupboard.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Carnage Continues

Since getting into birding, Glenn and I have noticed that a really interesting variety of birds can pop up just about anywhere. Cooper's Hawks, Great Blue Herons, Mallards, and even Green Herons make regular appearances at the generic, Irvine-adjacent office park where Glenn works—this gives him something to look forward to at work besides free orange juice in the lunchroom (woohoo!).

But yesterday, he saw something disturbing—a Black Phoebe killing another Black Phoebe. The two birds were engaged in a frenzied mid-air battle, which gravitated towards one of the buildings in the office park. The birds slammed into a window, then one flew off. The remaining bird lay unconscious on the window ledge, and didn't move for the rest of the day. It was pretty obvious he was a goner.

"That bird KILLED another Phoebe!" Glenn exclaimed when he got home.

"I don't think he MEANT to kill him—it was probably just a territorial thing and he wanted him off his turf. The other bird dying was just an accident."

"Yeah, but he didn't even seem to feel bad about it; he just flew off!"

Obviously, the ethical considerations of Black Phoebes are way beyond the realm of our expertise. But this, combined with the hormonal frenzy of the mating season, made me realize that the birding community hasn't exploited an obvious angle for getting the general public interested in birds:

Sex and violence.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Tern On, Drop Out

Spring migration may be drawing to a close, but as an old friend once said, "there's no such thing as a boring bird." This was a weekend for seeing our local birds engaged in some interesting, and sometimes baffling, behaviors.

Our adventures started early on Saturday morning. Glenn and I drove to Huntington State Beach for our first day out as volunteer docents on the Snowy Plover/Least Tern Natural Preserve As I ate breakfast, I skimmed again through the docent training brochure, mentally rehearsing the answers to FAQs I was expecting to get from beach-goers:

1) This area is fenced off because endangered Least Terns (those squeaky little things with pointed wings) use it as their nesting area. It's one of only four Least Tern breeding areas in Orange County.

2) I can see your dog is well behaved, but he's still not allowed on the sand. Why? Because small birds are naturally scared of dogs, and just the presence of any dog might interfere with their breeding. After all, wouldn't you be bothered if a bunch of dogs kept wandering in while you were trying to make out—? Well, that's just you.

3) I know you are, but what am I?

Thankfully, I only had to use answer (1).

The Least Terns were out in full force; some appeared to have started nesting already. Dozens of them dipped and swirled over the beach, bearing tiny fish. We spotted only one Snowy Plover, but that was one more than the previous day's monitors had seen.

At the end of our shift, we headed inland to Huntington Central Park to look for songbirds. Most of the usual springtime suspects were there (Orange-crowned, Townsend's, Yellow-rumped, and Wilson's Warblers; Warbling Vireos, Ash-Throated Flycatchers, Western-Wood Peewees, House Wrens, lots of very noisy Downy Woodpeckers), as well as a Hermit Warbler and a pair of Hooded Orioles.

Most of the birds were surprisingly easy to see, since a huge number of them (particularly the wrens and Peewees) were feverishly engaged in noisy, violent confrontations that were either territorial battles or particularly nasty breeding rituals—I have no idea which. At one point, Glenn spotted a pair of House Wrens rolling around on the ground under a bush, squealing loudly and pecking HARD at each other—one seemed to be trying to rip the feathers out of the other's tail.

Isn't nature romantic?

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Birth of a Fogey

All my life, I have fought the urge to bird. Sure, birds are intriguing and fun to watch. And listening to them on a spring morning is better than getting free box tickets at the Hollywood Bowl.

But...birding is for old people. REALLY old people. Everyone knows that if you can tell more than 3 sparrows apart, you probably can't remember where your car keys are—that is, if your grandchildren still let you drive.

I wasn't going to be one of those people—at least not for another 40 years or so, thank you very much. Then, and only then, would I allow myself be seen in public with binoculars around my neck.

Then I started training for the first Orange County Marathon —and my resolve was broken.

My increasingly long training runs took me into Fairview Park in Costa Mesa, though the adjoining Talbert Nature Reserve , and down the bike trail along the Santa Ana river to Huntington Beach (or inland, to the 405 Freeway, after which the scenery became dull and industrial). I set some rules for myself: do not stop running unless (1) you're in in near-death levels of pain, or (2) safety requires it (that is, if a truck crosses my path or something), or (3) if something really, really cool shows up.

And those really, really cool things invariably turned out to be birds. Like my very first sighting of Black Skimmer (my thought at the time: What the hell is THAT??), and the adult Bald Eagle, in full white-headed plumage, who landed calmly on a telephone pole right in front of me—in the middle of one of California's most boring and homogenized suburbs. Or those three brilliant red birds, accompanied by a couple of brown ones of the same size, who mysteriously appeared on the chain-link fence lining the trail then disappeared seconds later. (I'm now pretty sure they were Summer Tanagers—either that, or I was more dehydrated than I thought and was hallucinating.)

Soon I started looking for birds even when I wasn't running. Then weekend trips to the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and Bolsa Chica began to replace my usual weekend forays to South Coast Plaza. I dragged my husband along for company, and he began bringing along a camera. Then he got an even bigger camera. Then another.

Now there was no denying it. We were birders. Just like all those really, really old people—who, despite their thick bifocals and hearing aids, often have the mysterious power to discern fieldmarks on flying sparrows a football field away and to identify calls of vagrant warblers over the din of sirens and screaming children. This power, they always explain with Yoda-like equanimity, comes from years of practice and experience.

Getting old may not be so horrible after all.