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.

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