Sunday, June 24, 2007

Baby Season

Summer has always been my favorite season, but since I've started birding it drives me nuts. It's the one time of the year when I have extra time to bird (summer vacation for my students should mean bird time for me)—but there's not a hell of a lot to see around here.

But what the local birding scene lacks in variety right now, it makes up for in low-level personal drama. The thing to look for right now is nesting activity—and there's lots of it.

Last weekend at Bolsa Chica, a pair of Black-necked Stilts had established a nest just off the footbridge. We watched as one came by and took over its partner's place on the nest: the latter slowly stood up, looking a bit stiff from a long period of sitting, then the other sat down and fidgeted for several minutes before finding a comfortable position.

Yesterday, we were back at the Least Tern Reserve at Huntington State Beach. A large number of tiny chicks were already walking about and waiting for handouts. We had to stay at some distance from the boundaries of the reserve, since the adults were aggressively dive-bombing anyone who came too close.

It's easy to see why Least Terns are such a vulnerable species: they nest on the sand and lay tiny sand-colored eggs that hatch into little sand-colored chicks. Without the protective fencing, they'd have no chance against dogs, off-road vehicles, or even normal pedestrians looking at the waves instead of at the ground.

And even the fencing can't keep out all potential threats to little terns:

At one point yesterday morning, a police helicopter flew low over the reserve, and the terns rose in a defensive swarm. The helicopter left after a few seconds, but the birds kept swarming. Then we saw why: this Peregrine Falcon had also been circling the area.

Thankfully, he flew off before the situation turned into some kind of Endangered Bird Smackdown. Peregrines are not exactly a dime a dozen either and they are always a joy to watch—but they have the option of eating gophers or more common birds, while the Least Terns don't have too many options at all. Still, I'm glad I didn't have to step in and intervene in this one.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Weddings, Sex, and The Adventures of Wetsuit Boy

My birding opportunities this weekend were constrained by my sister's wedding—to keep this discussion bird-related, I'll only mention that she wore a headpiece containing what looked like Snowy Egret plumes. I hope they just came from farmed ostriches or something. She looked utterly stunning—who would have thought that the little punk who used to call me "Inspector Spithead" would make such an elegant bride? The mind boggles.

Glenn and I managed to slip away from the family compound (and from way too much food and wine) on Sunday morning. By Sunday afternoon, we made it to Bolsa Chica, where we tried in vain to find the Pacific Loon who had been hanging out there. We settled instead for an afternoon of tern-watching.

A large flock of Elegant Terns was fishing by the floodgates, while a single Forster's Tern sat on the fence watching them. We noticed this last spring as well: one lonely Forster's Tern trying in vain to scare off the other birds. A couple of Black Skimmers were also hunting in the area; I never get tired of watching them.

Down by the footbridge, the Least Terns had started nesting in the fenced-off area. There was also some hot and heavy breeding action going on:

Who says family entertainment has to be dull?

Glenn got Tuesday off, which allowed to make up for our birdless Saturday. We spent a few uneventful hours at San Joaquin and Huntington Central Park, then headed back to Bolsa Chica with one of Glenn's photo buddies. Several other photographers were there, all trying to capture shots of the Elegant Terns in mid-air battles for fish.

While watching the terns, we ran into a Fish and Game biologist who was trying to figure out what to do about an illegally parked car by the floodgates. We were all really glad to see him since on any number of previous visits to Bolsa Chica, we'd seen any number of people behaving badly: letting their dogs run loose around nesting birds and letting kids throw rocks at birds, for instance—and every time, we'd say to each other "God, I wish a ranger were here!"

And even though this guy wasn't a ranger, he was sympathetic and happy to entertain our rants. And his presence gave the photographers a chance to diss their archnemesis: Wetsuit Boy.

Anyone who frequents Bolsa Chica on weekends has probably seen Wetsuit Boy. You can't miss him: he's the guy in the wetsuit with a big camera who crawls over fences and stomps into the marsh to take pictures. The other big-lens guys thought he was just an obsessive eccentric until they found out that he was using live feeder mice, tied to his car, to lure kestrels and kites to close shooting range. Of course, Glenn and all the other big-lens guys want the perfect shot, too, but none would dream of hurting or manipulating the birds to get it. For them, photography is a sport as much as an art, and stunts like this are bad sportsmanship.

The Fish and Game guy was, indeed, familiar with Wetsuit Boy. He told us that WB had been cited a few weeks back for wading out to one of the islands where the terns were breeding. He managed to frighten off the adult terns, which allowed a flock of crows to swoop down and help themselves to tern chicks for lunch. His excuse for this? He was a Baptist preacher (!) and was taking photos for a book promoting Christianity.

Am I the only one who's fed up with moral midgets who use Christianity to justify or excuse their bad behavior? Don't other Christians find them embarrassing? As for Wetsuit Boy, I will lay upon him the worst curse one could put on a photographer:

May your sensors be eternally coated with dust.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A Shameless Ploy for Attention

I love writing, I love birds, I love writing about birds. So I'd probably be blogging here even if nobody read anything I posted.

But it would be much more fun if someone did, and apparently this will help:

Technorati Profile

Alrighty then, let's see if if does!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Knocked Up

Less birding is sometimes more. This weekend, we didn't get to see a huge number of birds, but the ones we did see, we got to watch in intimate detail.

We started with our morning tern-sitting duty at Huntington State Beach. The Least Terns are now starting to settle into their nests, and many have already laid their eggs. The pairs that haven't settled in yet were busy checking out nest sites. We had great fun watching one little tern busily scraping away nest holes with its feet, sending little puffs of sand flying behind it, while its partner looked on—it reminded me of a tiny dog digging for buried treats.

I'm being gender-neutral here for a reason: our docent training brochure said that male Snowy Plovers make the nest scrapes, and the females choose which one to use—but it said nothing about how this division of labor works for Least Terns. I'm guessing that the male terns do the scraping and the females did the choosing for them as well—after all, if the woman had to dig a nest hole, she'd no doubt get it right the first time!

The mating cycle of Least Terns moves way too quickly to make a credible nature documentary, à la March of the Penguins. Just last week, the males were in desperate pick-up mode. We watched one desperate chap plying a female with a fish-by rubbing it up and down her back for at least five minutes—before she finally deigned to take it. I hope she was worth it.

Then there was the cad who approached a female with a nice fat fish, promptly mounted her, then flew off—with the fish still firmly in his beak. Nice. This is the kind of guy women everywhere have been warned about.

And now,the pick-up joint that was the Least Tern Reserve just last week is deepest suburbia—nothing but young families setting up their nurseries. Quite a steep dramatic arc for one week. Least Terns are the definitive masters of speed dating.

The rest of our limited weekend birding also centered around bird families. After our shift ended at the reserve, we headed to Talbert Nature Reserve near our place in Costa Mesa—partly to see if we could find more California Gnatcatchers, and mostly because we were lazy and it was close to home. The gnatcatchers were in their usual spot, making their usual meowing calls, but we also kept hearing a House Wren nearby. REALLY nearby—practically yelling into our right ears. But at first, we couldn't see it.

Then we spotted it—nesting in the cut-off end of a hollow tube that was part of the gate to the reserve. Its mate/parent/whatever flitted back and forth from the nearby bushes to the pipe nest, bearing fat worms and pieces of nesting material.

Our other sighting for the day was a Yellow-breasted Chat, which was kind enough to stay still for a few pictures.

Sunday was a rare weekend day not dedicated exclusively to birding; we decided to take our (absurdly mature, self-directed, and emotionally together) college-age nephew out kayaking in the Upper Newport Back Bay. We spent some time watching the Osprey nest on Shellmaker Island; three birds were there (fledglings?) and another kept watch on a pole nearby. We hoped that one of them would dive and catch a fish for the benefit of our nephew (just so the outing would prove to be more to him than just an upper-body workout with some familial cross-examination tacked on) but no such luck.

But an uneventful day of paddling or birding is still better than a day spent doing almost anything else. What's not to like?