Sunday, July 29, 2007

The More I Bird, The Dumber I Get

"Every time I learn the name of a student, I forget the name of a fish."
—David Starr Jordon (ichthyologist and first president of Stanford University)

Right now, I'm suffering the opposite problem of the late Dr. Jordan: Every time I remember the name of a bird, I forget the name of a student. Or something I'm supposed to be teaching that student.

Maybe it only feels that way. Before I got into birding, I thought of it the same way most non-birders do: as an amiably mindless activity for children and people in the twilight of their lives. Once I got into it, I thought birding would be a skill like long-distance running or learning a second language: it would get easier with time and experience.

Instead, it just kept getting harder. The more I learned, the more I realized what I didn't know and should know. And every time I mastered some new and useful habit of bird observation ( the beak! the beak! Quick! Get the shape and length of the beak!), I learned of a dozen other things I was supposed to have noticed in the three-second period when a new bird comes into view.

This weekend presented a wealth of opportunities for me to face my ignorance. It started (as usual) with docent duty at the Least Tern reserve at Huntington State Beach. The breeding season is winding down: a few young chicks are still present, but most of this season's hatchlings have fledged and are in full undergraduate mode (flying and hunting imperfectly yet independently, and still happy to take handouts from Mom and Dad).

A pair of birders came by to check out the chicks. We started chatting, and I realized I was totally blanking on most the their questions: How many chicks hatched this year? (I had gotten an e-mail on this very topic earlier in the week, but had completely forgotten the numbers.) How long has that fence been there? (Beats the hell out of me.)

After our shift ended, Glenn and I dropped by Huntington Central Park. High in one of the trees between "the island" and the pond behind the library was a bright yellow warbler. I knew it was a warbler because of its fine bill and inability to stop moving—but what kind? Bright yellow with olive wings around here= either a Yellow Warbler or a Wilson's Warbler. But I couldn't see any of the Yellow Warbler's red streaks on its breast, and it was too high up for me to tell if it had the telltale black cap of a Wilson's Warbler.

There are no doubt ways of distinguishing the two birds apart from these obvious fieldmarks, but I have no idea what they are.

Saturday night was the Sea and Sage Audubon Summer Barbeque. The invited speaker gave a terrific presentation on the pelagic birds of Southern California—all fascinating, and none familiar to me. Many had migration and breeding patterns that reminded me of back-cover blurbs on fat historical romances ("An epic tale of sex and danger spanning four continents—Buller's Shearwater!") The speaker explained with great care and passion the tiny distinguishing features between the dozens of jaegers and petrels. They were easy to see on his well-focused slides, but would I be able to catch these on a flying bird while on the deck of a rocking boat?

Probably not. At least not yet.

Yet more stuff I now know that I don't know. Oh joy!

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.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Name That Band

What's with his legs? Inquiring Canadians want to know!

After posting a message on Orange County Birding about spotting a couple of banded birds over the weekend, I received an e-mailed question from the ever-vigilant Nancy Kenyon: had I reported my sightings?

My first thought was, "Wait, I did report it—doesn't posting about it both on OC Birding and here count?"

Well, no. Nancy was nice enough to track down and pass along this link to the Bird Banding Office of the Canadian Wildlife Service. The office has taken responsibility for tracking reports of banded shorebirds internationally. (I have a soft spot for Canada, since I spent three wonderful (albeit poverty-stricken) years working in Vancouver—what's not to love about a country that has both a functional universal healthcare system and the wherewithal to track every banded bird in the Western Hemisphere?)

The BBO site is fun to explore. Along with a link to a form one can submit to report sightings (and copious information on how to provide as obsessively detailed a report as possible), there is also info on how to band birds, and info on color-coding of the 'flags' (bands with visible tabs) seen on some birds. Apparently, the flags are color-coded by country of origin: birds that are 'flagged' in the US get green flags, for instance.

My flagged Red Knot from the weekend had a yellow flag, which means he/she was banded in Peru. Wow. That little thing flew all the way to Bolsa Chica from all the way down there?

Birds never cease to freak me out.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Snowy Day in Hell

This weekend's birding adventures started auspiciously enough. Glenn and I got up early on Saturday morning to monitor the Least Tern Reserve at Huntington State Beach. The surf was low and choppy, which meant fewer surfers than usual—so far, so good. The terns seemed to be doing well: the chicks had started to fledge and were able to fly in and out of the fenced-off area on their own; many rested with their parents on the sand in front of the reserve.

We also spotted three Snowy Plovers (one of which was banded) walking around near the water line. A Peregrine Falcon flew over the reserve, but left without trying to take any of the terns. Our morning seemed to be off to a good start.

This was followed by a necessary (and planned) trip to Costco, where we thought we heard a Killdeer in the parking lot. Then two hours in the emergency room at Hoag Hospital (the stitches come out next week...), then several more hours back at Costco, waiting along with half the population of Fountain Valley to get our tires changed. The only birds we saw Saturday afternoon were the roasted chickens in Costco's deli section.

On Sunday, we were determined to make up for lost time. After breakfast, we headed back to Bolsa Chica. We do hang out there obsessively, partly because it's close to home and a pleasant walk even on non-birdy days, but today, it seemed particularly appropriate given this article in today's Los Angeles Times on the never-ending battle over the future of Bolsa Chica. It's easy to forget how rare and vulnerable a place it is—especially when you're hanging with photographers who keep muttering about how interesting birds must keep themselves backlit on purpose.

While at Bolsa, we spotted three Red Knots not far from the footbridge—one had two bands on one of its legs, one bearing the number 173. Our Independence Day Brant was still there, swimming and preening itself near the tidegates. Apart from these, nothing but the usual pleasant assortment of terns, skimmers, and egrets. A quick spin by San Joaquin revealed—not much. But it was still a pleasant afternoon out.

Just out of habit, Glenn asked me if I had enjoyed our weekend's activities. far as it is possible to enjoy slashing my dominant hand and being unable to bathe, cook, swim, knit, write by hand, or otherwise contribute anything meaningful to society for the next week and a half...

Yet things could have been a hell of a lot worse. If you absolutely must take a weekend detour through an emergency room, you can do a whole lot worst than Hoag. As we headed there, I was bracing myself for King/Harbor levels of bloodshed and chaos—but as it turned out, the ER waiting area was nearly empty except for a handful of mildly injured weekend warriors. All of us were treated promptly.

And despite my (temporary) limitations, at least I can still bird—and despite one sucky afternoon, I actually DID bird the whole weekend.

So yes, I did enjoy my weekend. Sort of.

Monday, July 9, 2007

My Favorite Weekend

Birds and food. What more can you want?

What makes for a perfect weekend of birding? This weekend certainly wasn't it. (Brief summary: Bushtits! Bushtits! Bushtits!) So I won't discuss my weekend sightings here. Instead, I will pay homage to the Los Angeles Times' most vapid feature : My Favorite Weekend! (And my weekend won't include sushi, yoga, or token "quality time" with a kid from a previous marriage!)

Friday night: Dinner at Honda-Ya in Tustin. Sip sake and Sapporo and eat soothing simmered stews and grilled things on skewers until we explode. (And since this is our idealized favorite weekend, none of the booze will have the slightest effect on our ability to drive home.) Return home, check OC Birding for the latest sightings.

Saturday morning: Wake up at 6. Eat a quick breakfast, load our kayaks on top of the car, and head to North Star Beach for a morning of paddling around Upper Newport Bay. Watch the resident Ospreys fishing and feeding their fledglings at their nest on Shellmaker Island. In the reeds at the water's edge, Clapper Rails and Green Herons will be strolling about. Terns and Black Skimmers will swoop just inches above our heads.

Saturday afternoon: After a picnic on the beach and a trip home to shower and store our boats, we head to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. By now, the sun has peaked and the birds are starting to revive from their midday doldrums. We start at the front ponds, looking for nesting activity, late/extremely early migrants, or just plain weird behavior from the permanent residents. We move into the back area, where White-tailed Kites, Northern Harriers, Red-shouldered Hawks, and half a dozen migrant warbler species (hey, this is Our Favorite Weekend) make lengthy appearances and sit cooperatively for Glenn's photos. We watch White-faced Ibises and Black-crowned Night Herons settle back into the front ponds as the sun sets.

Since it's our Favorite Weekend and none of this activity has made us hot, sweaty, or dusty, we are presentable enough to head across the street to Ruth Chris for filet mignons and a good Shiraz. As we eat, we marvel that a place like San Joaquin could exist only 5 minutes from John Wayne Airport. Life is good.

Sunday morning: We're off to Huntington Central Park, where we run into a lot of birders. We spot dozens of marvelous little critters flitting about near the island (many of which will be identified for us by friendly, more experienced birders nearby). On our best days at HCP, we come out feeling smarter and more knowledgeable then we we came in.

Sunday afternoon: After lunch at the Park Bench Cafe at HCP (food is only so-so, but the servers are sweet and the setting even sweeter), we head to Bolsa Chica and park by the footbridge. We watch loons and random geese swim about. Then we walk down to the tidegates and watch for Black Skimmers and hunting terns and egrets. The long-term visiting Reddish Egrets flail about looking panicked and hysterical as they hunt—but we notice they catch as many fish as their more sedate local cousins. There is method to their madness.

From the tidegates, we head up to the mesa, where Peregrine Falcons and Merlins make regular appearances. Near the beanfield, we spot Loggerhead Shrikes and Western Meadowlarks poking about in the brush. Back at the tidegates, we join the gang of photographers trying to get sunset shots of the Elegant Terns in flight.

As we head back to the parking lot, the scent of lighter fluid and grilled meat wafts across PCH from the beach. This always makes Glenn declare that he wants carne asada for dinner. And since this is Our Favorite Weekend, we indulge: as we sip margaritas and wait for our food to arrive, I tally up the list of our sightings for the weekend.

Sunday night: We head home, where the house is pristine and sack lunches are ready for us to take to work on Monday. Since this is still part of Our Perfect Weekend, I have no problem sets to grade and all my lectures for the week are prepped and ready to go. After a hot bubble bath, I curl up with some light reading and start planning my next weekend. My only challenge of the day: how can I top perfection?

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Two Days at Bolsa Chica

Good birding spots are like good friends: the longer you know them, the more interesting they get. Last Sunday, Glenn and I spent our millionth weekend afternoon at Bolsa Chica, and yesterday was our million-and-first trip there. And both times, we came away surprised.

My usual Sunday ritual is to rise at the crack of dawn, drive up to Santa Monica for a work-related meeting, drive back home (stopping in Little Saigon for some excellent banh mi to take home for lunch), eat said banh mi, and think about where we'd like to look for birds. This time, we decided to head to Bolsa Chica.

Up on the mesa of dying eucalyptuses, we spotted a young Peregrine Falcon perched in one of the bare trees. We explored the area for about an hour, and on the way out, saw the same bird, in the exact same spot. Glenn and another photographer decided that they wanted some in-flight shots of her, and they figured that since she'd been in the same spot for over an hour, she'd probably be taking off soon.

So we stood and waited. She just stood there.

We waited some more. She stared disdainfully down at us.

She hopped. The guys gripped their cameras.

And she casually hopped down to the base of the branch she was sitting on and grabbed a large hunk of meat that had been sitting there. Then she hopped back to her original post and began eating it.

Apparently, she had eaten the rest of this kill before, and had stored the leftovers nearby for later consumption. I posted a query about this behavior on Orange County Birding, and another birder told me that he'd seen a peregrine hording multiple kills—"much more than he could eat before it rotted"—on a high-rise windowsill where it had been nesting! (Thanks for the info, John!) So our Bolsa Chica girl wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary.

Yesterday, we returned to Bolsa Chica to see if we could find her again. She wasn't there, but we spotted a sea lion swimming from the north end of the lagoon towards the tidegates, and later saw him/her sunbathing on the retaining wall by the tidegates. A number of people came up to us and asked if we thought it was sick and needed help—I was wondering the same thing, and also wondering why anyone would think we had any clue about diagnosing the health of sea lions. Maybe our dorky birder gear made us look smart. Or Glenn's British Colonial accent reminded them of Steve Irwin. Or something.

We spent some time watching egrets and terns fishing in the area, then headed towards the footbridge. Just when we decided the area was unspeakably boring, we spotted this Brant:


Then we headed home (feeling greatly superior to all those poor shmucks still waiting to get into the beach parking lot across the street) and enjoyed the the rest of the holiday. A great benefit of living in a city where fireworks are legal is the free entertainment—all we have to do is step outside and watch our neighbors blow stuff up.

Almost as much fun as seeing a Brant in July.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Lords of Discipline (In Our Dreams...)

When Glenn and I signed up to volunteer at the Least Tern Reserve, we requested weekend shifts, and were immediately given them. At the time we signed up, we were surprised to learn that nobody else had volunteered for Saturday or Sunday.

Now I know why. Weekends comprise precisely the times when the preserve needs the most protection (because the largest number of visitors are present), but this also makes it the toughest time to be a docent.

On one hand, larger numbers of beachgoers mean larger numbers of people who can be made aware of the rewards of sharing the beach with birds. This Saturday, I brought along my spotting scope, and offered views of the chicks to several burly surfers cracking lame jokes about the terns. They seemed genuinely surprised and touched. "Wow, check out those little bastards!" one of them exclaimed.

One of those little bastards

On the other hand, larger numbers of people mean a larger probability of encountering jerks who deserve to have their balls twisted off.

Now that summer is in full swing, the beach is busier than ever. We got to the reserve on Saturday about 8 a.m., and the parking lot was already almost full. On the beach, someone had already hung a towel on the front fence of reserve and nearby, a surfboard was already leaning against the flimsy front fence. We couldn't find the owners of these items and didn't want to move them ourselves, so we let it pass. We figured the guilty parties just weren't aware of the reserve rules, and we'd tell them nicely if and when we saw them.

We didn't ever see them, but we did encounter the same self-important jerk we ran into a few weeks back. He knew that the front fence was supposed to be kept clear because we specifically told him so (and told him why) the last time we saw him. So of course, he and his blond bimbo companion lean BOTH their surfboards against the fence, and hang BOTH their towels too, while looking right at us, as if to say "So what are you going to do?"

What could we do? Since there was already other stuff on the fence, we couldn't really single him out. We could have called for the badged patrol, but if they didn't think it worth their while to back us up, it would only make things worse. Besides, as our docent manual states, our job is to raise awareness and gain support, not "to be the Tern Police".

I always have to remind myself of that. As the saying goes, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

But you know what really gets their attention? Napalm.