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.