Thursday, August 30, 2007

Five Dumb Things Said About Birds

Your taxes allow this wild creature to poop on your head!

Last night was the end-of-season potluck barbeque for all us Least Tern Reserve volunteers. We grilled big hunks of meat and shared desserts and horror stories as the sun set over Huntington State Beach. A great time was had by all.

Among the goodies we received were a compilation of the top volunteer observations and public comments over the season. ("June 1: 12 Willets, 10 surfers, couple having sex, several Marbled Godwits..."). The public comments were, well...interesting. On one hand, they made me realize how deeply needed our work on the reserve was. On the other hand, they made me realize that there is a scary level of ignorance about birds out there. Even worse than the ignorance about birds is the outright hostility I've seen towards those of us who do actually care about the natural world.

So here is my list (in increasing order of dumbness) of the five dumbest things I've heard people say about birds and birding, both in the Least Tern Reserve and out. (Some of these I didn't actually hear, but other Reserve volunteers did.) Be very afraid...!

5. (said by a cyclist in the Upper Newport Bay) "If I wanted to watch birds, I'd watch the Discovery Channel."

4. (said by former coworkers) "You go out and watch birds? You must get a lot of poop on your head."

3. (said to a volunteer at the Least Tern Reserve) "I'm tired of my tax dollars going to save endangered species!"

2. (said to a volunteer at the Least Tern Reserve) "You mean to tell me there are WILD BIRDS here on a PUBLIC BEACH?!"

1. (said by an adult during a tour of the San Joaquin Nature Reserve): "Wait—ducks can fly?"

Monday, August 27, 2007

Fall Is Here, and It's Time To Get Schooled

The Northern Shovelers are back! Time to hit the books!

Labor Day is almost here and they're selling tweed again at the malls, but I've refused to believe that summer is over. How could summer be over? My fall teaching doesn't start up again until the end of September, and the birding around here, for the most part, has still been sucky.

But this weekend, the sighting of some early fall migrants made me finally face reality.

My first autumn-ish sighting was at Starbucks on Saturday morning, as Glenn waited to get his latte before we headed back to Laguna Niguel Regional Park: a former student of mine perkily brewing up stimulants for the sleepy masses. "OHMIGOD IT'S YOU HOW HAVE YOU BEEN?!" he screamed over the loud gurgle of steaming milk.

He was one of my best students, but seeing him again made the sloth in me shudder. Fall is here. Time to start writing syllabi again. Actually, time to get my department to finally decide which !*&%$ classes I'll be teaching so I can start writing syllabi again. Blah.

On the upside, fall means more birds. At Laguna Niguel, we saw the same assortment of birds we saw last week—Wilson's and Yellow Warblers, Bullock's Orioles, Nutmeg Mannikins, Warbling Vireos, Nuttall's Woodpeckers, a Pacific-slope Flycatcher and something we thought could be a Cassin's Vireo. Or maybe not:

What is this?

On Sunday, an afternoon trip to San Joaquin revealed the return of the winter ducks: Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teals were mingling with the Mallards and Cinnamon Teals. We circled the back ponds in search of the "Least Bittern Fest" reported on the list by the Audubon House earlier in the week. The ongoing Bittern party was audible but not visible—we heard several of them calling from the reeds edging the ponds, but saw nary a one.

Just when we were about to give up and head home, we ran into a local birding force of nature in the parking lot. (I'm not sure if she'd like to have her name plastered here, so I'm leaving it out.) The Force of Nature asked us what we'd seen and we ended up trailing in her wake, flabbergasted, for the next 3 hours, as she pointed out random specks that turned out to be Orioles and Tanagers and little dots in the distance that turned out to be Orange Bishops and Soras and Spotted Sandpipers and....

Did all those critters just show up when she did, or did we just miss them during our first pass through the marsh? Most likely the latter...

It definitely pays to hang with people who know more than you. The Force of Nature not only pointed out tons of stuff we probably would have missed, but tossed out dozens of useful tips: for instance, flocks of bushtits may contain Chickadees and Warblers during migration and thus should not be overlooked; and that weird song that I was sure belonged to some exotic migrating sparrow species actually belonged to a young Song Sparrow still trying to acquire the adult lingo. I felt smarter just listening to her.

But I also felt dumb—this made me realize how little I actually know about birds.

Back at Starbucks, my old student told me he had been given permission to take a graduate-level course in the area in which I had taught him last year. This was exceptional, as our department is wary of letting undergrads contaminate its graduate program. And the class that I had him in was one most of our majors hate. Maybe I don't totally suck as a teacher after all! Woohoo!

And it's definitely time for me to get back into my fall mode again. I generally focus my summers on two areas: (1) my academic research/writing and (2) sloth. And area 2.5: birds. Fall means a transition back from being a student to being a teacher, from sucking up information to sharing it.

It might just be fun.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Sustainable Kitchen Is Just a Keg Away!

I've just come to realize that there's no way one can be a dedicated birder without being a dedicated environmentalist: if you care about birds, you have to care about how your actions affect the lives and well-being of birds. Anyone who goes on some rarities chase in a Hummer while leaving all the lights and appliances on at their Irvine McMansion is in serious denial at best and is a gross hypocrite at worst.

Granted, there is some minor sacrifice involved in adopting a greener lifestyle (such as the tiny effort of sorting and recycling one's trash—just suck it up and do it already!) But worry not, it's not all sackcloth and ashes for bird lovers: as a recent posting on observes, one environmentally-friendly lifestyle change involves getting your beer in a keg instead of in bottles or cans!

Bottoms up!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Birding Meme

I found this meme—a list of questions for birders—on Cogresha's birding blog. Don't look at it; it'll put my blog to shame. Okay, go ahead—you'll like it, I promise.

Here are my answers to Cogresha's thought-provoking questions. I'm curious as to how others would answer these—feel free to share your thoughts!

Questions for Birders

1. What is the coolest bird you have seen from your home?

My most memorable at-home sighting was my very first sighting of a Townsend's Warbler about a year and a half ago, just after I started getting into birds. There I was, coming home from some errand and right in front of me appeared this amazing black-and-yellow bird unlike any I had ever seen before. It was the most exotic-looking little bird I had ever seen in the wild. At that time, I had no idea that such cool birds could exist in my lame little suburb. Now I know that Townsend's Warblers are regular winter visitors here, but I still get a buzz whenever I see one.

2. If you compose lists of bird species seen, what is your favorite list and why?

I've only recently started keeping formal lists of my sightings, as I wrote about here. For me, the only thing better than the happy memories of past birding trips is the anticipation of upcoming ones. So I'll answer this the same way Frank Lloyd Wright responded when asked what his favorite building was: "My next one."

3. What sparked your interest in birds?

What turned me into an official birder was my training routine for the Orange County Marathon. I did all my long training runs through Talbert Nature Reserve, and down to the mouth of the Santa Ana River. I only allowed myself to stop running if I was in life-threatening pain, or if something really unusual showed up. The race would have gone better if I hadn't chosen such a birdy training ground: during my long runs, I had my first sightings of a Black Skimmer, and my first local sighting of a Bald Eagle. I ended up taking a lot of walking breaks.

4. If you could only bird in one place for the rest of your life, where would it be and why?

I'm not touching this one with a ten-foot pole—may none of us ever have to make this choice!

5. Do you have a jinx bird? And why is it jinxed?

No jinx bird—just a lot I haven't seen yet, and a lot I'd like to see better.

6. Who is your favorite birder, and why?

I'm in no way qualified to judge who has the best ornithological credentials. But I am in deep awe of my first (and so far, only) official birding instructor, Sylvia Gallagher. Not only does she teach birding classes at every level, several days a week; she writes about our local birds and does bird embroidery that's mind-boggling (anatomical detail that rivals Sibley's drawings— in silk thread!). She's also politically active and active in our local Audubon chapter. And she's a great—and demanding—teacher. I noted with glee that an intermediate-level birding class offered by a neighboring chapter covered some of the same topics we slaved over in Sylvia's BEGINNING birding class. To her, if you can tell a penguin from an ostrich, you can surely distinguish a Cassin's from a Western Kingbird!

7. Do you tell non-birders you are a birder? What do they say to you when they find out?

Absolutely, if there's an opening for in in the conversation—I think of it as "birding evangelism": the more people who can be engaged in the natural world and made sensitive to its needs, the better. Most non-birders are politely curious about it; a typical response is to say they have an uncle/boss/neighbor who's really into birds. Quite a few also ask bird ID questions (e.g. "I saw this big yellow bird in my back yard; what do you think it was?"). If people aren't interested, of course I'll change the subject.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Hot Days and Cool Birds

The Least Tern breeding season is over, and Glenn and I have completed our minor role in sheparding the next generation of yappy little dive-bombers into adulthood. I'll miss those mornings on the beach, watching the little chicks grow into fledglings, and the fledglings learning the hunting and flying skills of adults. What I'll miss less is the behavior of human adults and their often less-than-sympathetic attitudes towards sharing the beach with any creature that doesn't surf. Grrr.

So on Saturday morning, instead of the cool of the beach, we faced down the heat and humidity of Laguna Niguel Regional Park (or, as the synthesized voice on Glenn's GPS unit inexplicably calls it, "Laguna Niguel Regional Pennsylvania". Huh?). Because of the heat, Glenn didn't feel like carrying his camera and big lens very far, so we stayed near the bottom of the park and birded the fenced-off area near the tennis courts.

Our little zone did not disappoint: it was very birdy. Among our sightings: Wilsons' Warblers, Warbling Vireos, Nutmeg Mannikins, a Nuttall's Woodpecker, and a large number of female/immature Bullock's Orioles. I'm sure there was a lot more in there to be ferreted out, as evidenced by Robert McNab's post on OC Birding on his Sunday trip to LNRP—he clearly knows a lot more about birds than I do. I definitely want to get back and spend more time there.

On Saturday afternoon, we returned to Bolsa Chica, in large part because it's by the sea, and thus cooler than inland locales. Unfortunately, every beach-goer in OC got the same idea, and we arrived at the parking lot by the footbridge only to find it completely occupied by carloads of people toting beach towels, coolers, and boogie boards (despite the "No Beach Parking" signs prominently displayed.)

So we headed instead to our much-less-convenient secret parking spot (no, I'm not saying where it is), cut down Wintersburg Channel (okay, that's your only hint) and set off.

At the tidegates, about half a dozen Black Skimmers were gliding over the water, and a number of Elegant, Caspian, and Forster's Terns were busy hunting. The water was high and clear, and we could see small sharks and skates, as well as huge schools of fish of various sizes, swimming right at the water's edge. It reminded me that it's about time I took a scuba refresher course.

Our most notable sighting at Bolsa Chica was a female Red-breasted Merganser swimming by the tidegates. We see them there regularly during the winter, but this was the first time I've seen one there during the summer.

We stayed late, since Glenn wanted to take photos of the terns and skimmers at sunset. While he shot away, I wandered down Wintersburg Channel to look for sandpipers. We had decided not to chase the Buff-breasted Sandpiper (for some reason, I felt pessimistic about our chances of seeing it, and Glenn hates shooting at Harriet Wieder Park), but I wanted to see something other than terns and Mallards. In the marshy area west of the channel, I spotted several Lesser Yellowlegs, Western Sandpipers, Black-bellied Plovers, and Semipalmated Plovers.

We were racing against the dark as we headed back to our car. As we strode down the path along the channel, we saw a flock of Canada Geese fly down and land in the lagoon across the channel from us. In the bean field, we saw a very bold coyote who didn't seem to mind as Glenn took numerous flash photos of him.

By time we got home, it was already 8:30 p.m.

Sunday morning was occupied by work-related stuff (for me), so no birding until late afternoon. We went to Crystal Cove, where we spotted a Roadrunner on the path in front of us, on the bluff right by our parking area. It took off just before Glenn could get a shot of it. On the beach, we saw Black Turnstones, Ruddy Turnstones, Black-bellied Plovers, Willets, and California, Western, and Heerman's Gulls.

Nothing mind-blowing, but a day at the beach is never anything to complain about.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Better Birding Through Technology

It's never too late to fulfill your New Year's resolutions. Mine was inspired by Kimball Garrett's presentation at the Sea and Sage Audubon pancake breakfast last fall: he encouraged birders to log in their sightings on eBird, a great site hosted by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The awesomeness of eBird comes in two flavors. First, it gives individual users an electronic record of all their sightings (which can be sorted and analyzed in a number of ways). Second, and more importantly, the collective input from users forms a huge database on bird distribution and population patterns. For obvious reasons, this information is of great interest to ornithologists.

I won't go into why it's taken me 10 months to get around to setting up an eBird account (it's free), but I finally did. The site is easy and fun to use; you just indicate where and when you birded, check off what you saw, and the program adds up the numbers for you. Very cool.

I faithfully submitted lists for all four of my weekend forays (to the Least Tern Reserve at Huntington State Beach, Bolsa Chica, Talbert Nature Reserve, and San Joaquin) and came up with a total of 59 birds. Not a Big Weekend by any stretch of the imagination, but respectable for a couple of lazy summer days out. Four outings sounds like a lot, but it really wasn't very intense—we still managed to fit in a showing of the latest Harry Potter movie followed by dinner and microbrews at a nearby brewpub. Yum.

And over dinner, we realized that we hadn't done the dinner-and-a-movie thing in a couple of years, since our weekend afternoons and evenings as of late had been dedicated to (1) birding, (2) recovering from birding and/or downloading Glenn's new bird photos, or (3) going to bed early in preparation for the next day's birding excursion.

But while wandering the wilds of South Coast Plaza before the film, we noticed some fledgling House Sparrrows being fed muffin crumbs by their parents outside Starbucks. No, I didn't log this sighting on eBird.

My favorite sightings of the weekend:

—Black-bellied Plovers in full breeding plumage at Huntington and Bolsa Chica,

— A banded juvenile Peregrine Falcon at Bolsa Chica,

There's no such thing as too many Peregrine Falcon shots

—Blue-gray and California Gnatcatchers only a few steps away from each other at Talbert. Both were pretty bold, and let me get close enough to see the white undersides of their tails: black for the California, and white for the Blue-gray. And the male California Gnatcatchers still had their telltale black caps.

—A Sora and what I'm pretty sure was a Least Bittern at San Joaquin (another birder nearby also thought it was a bittern, which reduces the chance that I was hallucinating).

Oh yeah—the owls in "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" looked really fake.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Birding Alone

Solitary birding can be either a huge rush or a frustrating pain in the butt. One one hand, I love it because it's fantastically soul-cleansing and relaxing, and it gives me the freedom to obsess over favorite places and birds without worrying about boring anyone.

On the other hand, there's something sad about seeing something really cool and having nobody to share it with. It's kind of like opening your Christmas presents by yourself. Then there's the problem of seeing something neat and unusual and having nobody believe you. I hate it when birds pull that Mr. Snuffleupagus routine.

And they tend to do that a lot.

Yesterday, they were having quite a time of it. Early yesterday morning, I ran a few short laps around Tanager Park in Costa Mesa. It's a tiny park, and a good spot to find Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Western Bluebirds, but it hasn't been very birdy as of late. But as I circled the park, I noticed a large, stocky, short-tailed bird on the lawn near some playground equipment: a Red-shouldered Hawk. It stayed on the ground briefly, then flew into one of the small trees near the footpath.

He was perched only about 7 feet off the ground, so I got a really close look at him as I ran past the tree. This surprised me, since the Red-shouldered Hawks I've seen so far have been fearful of people and seemed to perch as high off the ground as possible. Glenn has been trying since forever to get a close-up photo of one of them, but the mere sight of a camera lens 25 yards away is enough to send them flapping off into the ether.

Glenn would have loved this. But of course, he wasn't there.

After lunch, I headed to San Joaquin to give a tour of the marsh to a visiting conference group. They couldn't have chosen a worse time to look for birds: 2:30 in the afternoon in mid-August. Before we set out, I warned them that what we would see wouldn't be representative of the full diversity of bird life in the Marsh. And that it would be hot and uncomfortable.

Still, even the usual suspects in the marsh are fun to watch, and surprising and exotic to non-birders. (Every time I give a tour, I remember how beautiful and elegant-looking American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts really are.) A five-second sighting of one of the resident bobcats was an added bonus. But on the whole, the marsh was quiet, almost sterile. The trees were silent and empty....

... until after the tour ended and the conference-goers took off. After filling out the required paperwork in the Audubon House, I decided to take another spin around the marsh by myself. And of course, NOW a flock of Song Sparrows and a pair of Spotted Towhees were scratching gleefully in the middle of the path. And an Osprey was perched on a pole by the ponds near the entrance. And the female Wood Duck was back where I saw her last week. And a female Hooded Oriole was calling and jumping about in the trees in front of the Audubon House.

And there was nobody to show this to, and since I didn't bring a camera, no way of documenting it.

I hate it when this happens.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

What I Should Have Said

              Me and my big mouth...

"So, tell me about birding—I really don't know anything about it."

We were at my sister's place in San Diego yesterday, after a thoroughly unrewarding day of poking around the Tijuana Estuary. Apart from a few Clapper Rails, an Osprey, a Northern Harrier, a Cooper's Hawk, several Brown Pelicans, Killdeer, and Forster's Terns, the day's birding had been a wash. Nothing new for our life lists, and not even any sightings of any local birds that don't usually make it all the way up to Orange County (such as the Gull-Billed Terns or Little Blue Herons.) And now we were sipping wine in the kitchen with one of their neighbors, who was asking very nicely exactly what birding entailed, and what its appeal was.

And being sleep-deprived, sunburned, and dizzy from wine drunk on an empty stomach, I gave him a totally incoherent answer. I nattered on about Big Days and life lists, and left the poor dude with the impression that birding is something like paintball for nature lovers with obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Here's what I should have said instead:

I like birding for the same reasons I like Harry Potter novels—both allow an escape into a rich alternate world filled with both great beauty and incredible tension and danger. But birding is even more rewarding than great fantasy fiction: unlike Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, the magical parallel universe opened to birders is real—and all you need is a pair of binoculars and some patience to get in.

During the spring, I spent a lot of time in ordinary suburban parks filled with playground equipment and picnic tables. None of the minivan moms and kids yelling about how bored they were had any idea what was going on right over their heads. Did any of them have any clue that the trees were filled with gorgeous wild creatures with colors and patterns even brighter than those of domestic parrots? And that many of these would only be here a few weeks, before slipping off again to some distant locale?

If I were to tell one of the kids that I was looking for a bright yellow bird with a traffic-cone orange head, or a tiny songbird of blazing metallic aquamarine, most would think I was joking. After all, everybody knows that birds in southern California are all brown or black or grey. But Western Tanagers and Lazuli Buntings are unambiguously real—and with a bit of effort and some luck, I can find them.

And when I do, I know I've slipped into that parallel universe—but even better, I know it's not really a parallel universe, but the same one in which I live, work and fight off freeway traffic, only in exquisite detail. Because I bird, I can see parts of the physical world that most people miss. I can find incredible beauty and dramatic life-or-death struggles in seemingly mundane environments.

The search for different birds can become competitive, and the competition can be fun—it's rewarding to be able to quantify how much of the veiled physical world one has mastered, and to match one's skills against those of other birders. But the real pleasure of birding for me is just being a part of this hidden world: watching raptors pursue their prey, and fledgling terns learning to fly and hunt, is satisfaction enough.

I can see all of this, and most people can't or won't. Strangely, this makes me feel powerful.

And this is a kind of power nobody can take away.