Saturday, July 21, 2007

Little Grey Birds

Get a lifer: Our first White-breasted Nuthatch

I recently realized that I can finally call myself an intermediate birder, rather than a beginner.

The reason for this promotion wasn't getting though Sylvia Gallagher's beginning birding class in one piece (which I did last year). It was the realization that I'm finally starting to notice, and get really excited by, all those little dun-colored birds that I used to just ignore—if I even managed to register their presence at all. This week, I got lucky and saw three of them, all lifers for me.

I found my first new bird of the week at Talbert Nature Reserve in Costa Mesa. During a midweek walk, I heard a song I hadn't heard before—a husky, urgent warbling. I looked in the direction of the singing, and in the bushes by the path hopped a small grey bird with dark upperparts, a light breast and belly, and a faint white eye line and broken eye ring. It definitely wasn't a bushtit or a gnatcatcher, or anything else I'd seen before.

I rushed home, trying to keep my mental picture of the bird from fading, and flipped though my bird guides. The closest visual match was a Bell's Vireo. But I've been wrong about stuff like this before (more times than not, actually), so I checked the Bell's Vireo song at to see if it matched the song I heard at Talbert. It was a match: Bingo!

I encountered my next two new birds at Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary: Glenn decided he wanted to take photos of some Acorn Woodpeckers with a new lens he recently bought, and we knew Tucker was a reliable place to find them.

While there, I spent some time on a bridge spanning a (now dry) creek bed. I noticed what looked like really large Rock Pigeons flying back and forth between the trees on either side of the creek. But they didn't sound like Rock Pigeons, nor did they have that mongrel variation in plumage that Rock Pigeons usually have: they all had the same rosy/purple/grey pattern, and the same white band on the back of the neck.

In any nature reserve, it helps to read all those conspicuously posted educational placards: one of them, showing the reserve's typical birds, revealed this to be a Band-tailed Pigeon. When in doubt, read the instructions...

Glenn discovered the third new bird: a White-breasted Nuthatch hopping up and down some tree trunks in the middle of the reserve.

Seeing new birds always makes me feel happy and excited. Seeing two within a span of an hour, only yards apart, is even better. My first naive instinct was that since these two birds were new and different for me, they must be for everyone else as well. Surely, these must be rarities—otherwise we would have seen them already, right?

Wrong. After returning home and diving straight into Hamilton and Willick's book on Orange County bird distribution, I found that our new finds were only news to us—both Band-tailed Pigeons and White-breasted Nuthatches are pretty much par for the course in the foothills.

The reason we hadn't seen them before is that we spend most of our time birding closer to home, on the coast or the flatlands just off the coast. And up until recently, I'm sure I would have written off those Band-tailed Pigeons as just fat city pigeons, and would have been stomping around too cluelessly to notice the Nuthatch at all.

Figuring all this out was both exhilarating and humbling. I can truthfully say I know a lot more about finding and identifying birds now than I did when I started birding two years ago. But it will be years (more likely, decades) before I'll be able to promote myself from an intermediate-level birder to an advanced birder.

And I also need to get out more often.

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