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?

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