Saturday, November 24, 2007


                     Yum, yum!

The Thanksgiving holiday has been a welcome respite from my insane work schedule. We had our customary decadant dose of turkey and stuffing with my family up in L.A., AND two extra days to spend birding—what more could we want?

Even though we didn't spot too many rarities, just being outdoors with our cast of regulars was enough to be thankful for. My family, quite sensibly, has always eaten Thanksgiving dinner late (since everyone gets sleepy after a big dose of turkey, why not hold off the feast until just before bedtime?) Thus, Glenn and I had most of Thanksgiving day to spend outdoors looking for birds.

We started out at TeWinkle Park in Costa Mesa, where a couple of Hooded Mergansers and Yellow-throated Warbler were spotted last year. No rarities of that magnitude have been spotted there recently, but it still has a pretty pond filled with feisty ducks and herons, and is a pleasant place for strolling and photography. And as is the case with any park, occasional surprises do show up: last week, we saw this bird, who appears to be a female Summer Tanager:

Then we headed to the Upper Newport Bay, where we spotted two of the Eurasian Wigeons reported there earlier in the week. We also spotted a loon off near the opposite side of the bay, but from where we were, we couldn't tell what kind it was (most likely, it was the Pacific Loon reported during the last Sea and Sage monthly survey of the area).

On Friday, we celebrated Buy Nothing Day at Bolsa Chica, which was as jammed with waterfowl as South Coast Plaza was with shoppers. Over 100 Double-crested Cormorants were swimming near the footbridge, as were dozens of Brown Pelicans, Lesser Scaups, and Western Grebes. Near the tidegates were several Redheads mingling with the Scaups, as well as dozens of Snowy Egrets and White Pelicans. The only unusual birds we found were the resident Reddish Egret and a male Eurasian Wigeon, who was vocalizing loudly in one of the back lagoons.

We also saw, from a distance, the infamous bird-killing glass wall surrounding the McMansions on top of the bluff. I noticed strips of yellow tape—the kind used for police barricades—flapping from the wall: Were these put up in response to bird concerns? And who did it?

I learned during today's Sea and Sage Audubon trip to Bolsa Chica (can't get enough of that place!) that the tape wasn't actually attached to the wall, but to a chain-link fence that had just been installed directly behind the wall, in response to birders' concerns.

While a clearly imperfect solution (its looks won't go over well with homeowners, and small birds may still fly into the glass when trying to move through the fence), it at least shows that birders aren't as wimpy they look: we have the moral authority and clout to push people to do the right thing.

And this is something else to be thankful for.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Friday Fiction

Until recently Amy Hooper's blog (she's the editor of WildBird) featured an intriguing monthly contest: write a piece of short fiction (500-word limit) about birding. There were a few ground rules: the birds could not be anthropomorphized, and the stories needed to have a narrative arc and some kind of resolution.

I haven't written any fiction since grade school, but this seemed like too interesting a challenge to pass up. Unfortunately by the time I got my act together and submitted a story, the contest had been discontinued. Sigh.

But the great (or horrible) thing about blogging is that one gets to be totally me-centric. So here is my modest contribution to the world of birding-related micro-fiction. Enjoy!

The Real World

       Jake still hasn’t returned my call, my mother won’t stop calling, and for some stupid reason I promised my roommate that I would spend the day with her—get this—looking at birds. Does my life suck or what?
       “Come on Jen, it’s almost 7:30.”
       “I’m coming.”
       “And grab that binocular—it’s my spare, you’ll need it.”
       If I had known that Morgan always, freaking ALWAYS, said ‘binocular’ without the ‘s’, I swear I would never have moved in here.
       We got into Morgan’s dusty Prius. I didn’t ask where we were going, and I didn’t care. Probably one of her favorite hangouts, like the Bolsa Chica wetlands. Morgan is always going on about how birding is such as rush because it’s so real, life at its most basic. Once I got fed up with her touchy-feely BS and asked her if all those warblers were such an important part of the Real World, why didn’t they band together and get her that promotion.
       She didn’t get mad. She just gave me that look of hers.
       “Jen, look, I promise you’ll like this. Trust me. At least it’ll get your mind off Jake.” She pulled a hard right and turned into a tiny parking lot. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. No surprise here.
       We followed a path overlooking a lagoon filled with sandpipers and seagulls. She tried to tell me what they were all called, but the names—willet? whimbrel?— all blurred together.
       “Wait, I thought of something I think you’ll like. This way–“
       A short while later, we were at another lagoon.
       “Check out that Mallard—she’s got really cute babies.”
       I put Morgan’s binoculars up to my eyes. The ducklings were downy and mottled, and made little beeping noises as they swam after their mother. They weren’t that cute—not like the bright yellow ones they sell at Easter. But it was seriously weird how babies that tiny could swim in cold water and feed themselves. Mama Duck didn’t seem to be really helping them.
       It must suck to be a duckling.
       “The other birds to look out for here are —oh my god, LOOK!!”
       Morgan shot a finger at the sky. “It’s a Peregrine Falcon! Look, he’s diving!”
       I barely managed to spot it in mid-descent when I heard a splash and a bunch of ducks quacking and beeping.
       “Jen, he caught something! Now he’s —wait—yeah, he’s in that tree. Check it out.”
       I aimed my binoculars at the tree. Holy crap.
       “Morgan, what are we going to do?”
       “He’s got one of the baby ducks!”
       “Well, yeah, Peregrines eat other birds.”
       “But that baby—“
       “Already dead. Besides, Peregrines are endangered around here; Mallards are really common.”
       On the drive home, I didn’t feel like talking. Morgan had that blissed-out look she always has when she’s been birdwatching.
       Instead, I pulled out my phone. No call from Jake, but for some reason, I didn’t care. But there was a message from Mom. I guess it’s about time we touched base again.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Cold, Snowy Day in So Cal

Today was a quiet birding day. I woke up early as usual, blasted through the Sunday L.A. Times, worked on my PowerPoint presentations for my classes next week—then realized that I felt like crap: I was obviously coming down with the flu.

But this didn't stop me from birding. Glenn had slept in, and after a late-morning trip to Starbucks for lattes , we headed to Crystal Cove for some healthy ocean air and photo opportunities.

Walking around on the beach (wearing layers of sweats and a pair of gloves that Glenn had wisely stored in the car) made me feel a lot better. On the beach were not only the usual Black and Ruddy Turnstones and Sanderlings, but also about four Snowy Plovers. This surprised me: from my modest training for the Least Tern/Snowy Plover breeding project at Huntington State Beach last summer, I thought the Snowys departed for Mexico at the end of summer. But according to Hamilton and Willick''s guide to Orange County birds, they're here in small numbers year-round.

In either case, I'm glad I saw them, and even more glad that I got out of the house to see them. On the way home, we picked up a big pizza and ate it in front of the TV while drinking beer and watching "Ratatouille" on DVD. (Yes, I fully realize the potential irony of this—but it was a good pizza from a local, family-owned joint, and not some random Domino's thing.)

And I realized something else, apart from the interesting fact that Snowy Plovers appear year-round in these parts: No matter what ailment I have, a big dose of carbs, fat and booze always make it better. I don't think it works this way for most people.

I'm a very lucky girl.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

So Near, and Yet So Far

I hate to drive. I have a huge list of birding spots, Oaxacan restaurants, and interesting historical monuments all over Southern California that I plan to visit—eventually. But I never do because I don't feel like driving that far. I like to think it's because I'm environmentally responsible, but it's really just sloth. That, and my regular 100-mile round-trip commute to work from Costa Mesa to West L.A., through some of the most hellish traffic imaginable, makes the very idea of weekend freeway time unthinkably repulsive.

As a result, I've been doing most of my recent birding in my own zip code, or within a 15-minute radius of it—and I'm one of those lucky souls who can get a lot of good birds this way. But today, Glenn and I broke from our routine and headed all the way out to—ooh!—Orange! (And Glenn, who has an easy 15-minute commute to work, got to drive! Ha, ha.)

We spent several hours at Yorba Regional Park, a terrific place we'd only visited once before. It was actually Glenn's idea: he wanted some photos of the Wood Ducks that regularly frequent the park. And just as we had hoped, they were there, in the long pond that runs the length of the park (along with a Mandarin Duck, a Ring-necked Duck, a couple of Redheads, and the usual large flocks of Mallards, American Coots, and Ruddy Ducks).

(The true wonder of this photo is that it looks as though it were taken at twilight, as the setting sun cast its dying amber rays upon the water. In reality, it was taken at 10:00 a.m., and the evocative golden glow is the reflection of bright yellow plastic playground equipment on the shore.)

The trip also yielded birds we'd never seen at our usual coastal birding spots: several Mountain Chickadees and a White-breasted Nuthatch. We also got a another lifer: a Red-breasted Sapsucker, who we spotted twice in the grove of trees between the pond and the bike path along the river. (Unfortunately, it wasn't as cooperative as the Wood Ducks: we saw its unmistakable red head and black wings, but it didn't stay still long enough for photos.)

This assortment of birds seemed quite exotic to me, yet we were only a half-hour drive from home. It made me realize that birds are homebodies too.

But unlike birds, I can—and should—expand my range.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Embrace the Dark

A Merlin at Bolsa Chica

When I was a kid, Sunday evenings were my least-favorite time of the week: they signaled the end of the weekend and the impending onslaught of another week of homework and tests. And the worst Sunday night of all was the one right after Halloween, when we turned the clocks back: it was always darker, and sadder, with more homework and more torturous piano lessons and spelling tests looming ahead than any other weekend of the year.

Now that I'm grown up, I don't mind Sundays quite so much. Mondays suck less when you actually like your job. But now the dark Sunday night at the end of daylight savings time creeps me out for another reason: it reminds me of yet another year gone by—I'm just old enough to start worrying about stuff like that. And now I have yet another rubric for measuring the passing the the seasons: the comings and goings of birds.

But at least the arrival of a new crop of migrating birds is always something to look forward to, rather than something to dread.

This weekend, Glenn and I got two lifers, which everyone else in the 714/949 area code probably saw as well: the female Long-tailed Duck at Bolsa Chica, and the Red-throated Pipit at Harriet Wieder Park on the south end of Bolsa Chica. The duck was by the tidegates on Saturday morning, hanging out with a group of Lesser Scaups and Western Grebes. She stayed relatively close to the tidegate for about 15 minutes before taking off.

The aptly named Long-tailed Duck

We also saw the Merlin that had been reported there this week, along with a couple of American Kestrels and an Osprey eating a fish in one of the dead trees on the mesa.

Even better, nearly the whole complement of winter ducks was present—the Lesser Scaup, a Redhead, Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon and Green-winged Teal, Northern Pintails, Surf Scoters, and Buffleheads. We had fun showing these off to a novice birder hanging out by the tidegates, still amazed by the idea of all these birds. "Wow," she exclaimed, waving an arm at the passing traffic on Pacific Coast Highway, "all those people are just driving right past this place. And they have no idea..."

On Sunday morning, we went to find the Red-throated Pipit at Harriet Wieder Park. This also proved to be fairly straightforward: we just followed all the people with spotting scopes. Luckily, they were a friendly and generous bunch; without them, I'm sure we wouldn't have been able to pick it out of the huge flock of very active and skittish American Pipits it was hanging with. Claiming this as a lifer only after a group of people practically grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and shoved my face into it felt a bit like cheating—but I'll take it.