Saturday, December 22, 2007

Utterly Pointless Anthropomorphized Bird of the Week

Anthropomorphized penguins are a dime a dozen. But binge-drinking, underage penguins speaking Slovenian...priceless!

Happy holidays to all!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Just Another Day in Paradise

Ho hum. Whatever.

Last week, Orange County birders got an early Christmas/Hannukah/Festivus gift: a young Roseate Spoonbill who kept everyone staring obsessively up and down the banks of the Santa Ana River for a week before it decamped for the 909. (Or not—intriguingly, I got an e-mail from another birder who had Spoonbill sightings both in Orange and upstream in Riverside County, and feels they are different individuals.)

In any case, I haven't heard of any more Spoonbill sightings down here in the last few days. And even more conspicuously, no sightings of anything else have been reported to our local boards either. I'm sure this is not for the lack of great birds in the area: It's just that after last week's Spoonbill Fest, almost anything else would seem anticlimactic. (Yet another Light-footed Clapper Rail! Yawn.)

So this weekend felt a bit like the days right after Christmas: kind of a bittersweet return to normalcy.

Still, normal is good. Today, we decided to go back to Peters Canyon Regional Park, which we haven't visited since summer. Almost immediately, we spotted the Hooded Merganser reported by Neil Gilbert a few weeks ago—it was too far away for us to photograph, but its poofy black-and-white crest and brown flanks were conspicuous.

We also spotted several very noisy California Gnatcatchers, and our fun bird of the day: a rather bold Greater Roadrunner on the hill by the dam. We watched as it casually strolled across the path in front of us and ducked into the roped-off area overlooking the reservoir.

No bragging rights go with any of these birds. But the more I bird, the more I realize how lucky I am to live in an area where sightings of birds like these are almost routine. Flashy rarities sometimes make me lose touch with the richness and complexity of our local birding environment, and sometimes it takes a really boring weekend to bring things back into focus.

Normal is good.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Persistence Pays (And So Does Sloth)

Orange County Bird of the Week: The Roseate Spoonbill

There is a fundamental difference between the way bird photographers operate, and the way birders operate. Photographers seek out big, pretty birds in nice, pretty settings. Birders seek out anything with wings. Birders can spend hours looking into thick, shadowy foliage for that special warbler; photographers won't bother because (1) birds are great, but actually looking for birds is boring, and (2) even if that bird is in there, it'll make a crappy shot.

Birders flit from spot to spot in search of some rarity rumored to have been seen there 15 minutes earlier, while photographers plant themselves, like sequoias, in scenic locations, waiting for the birds to compose themselves into a perfect shot. This can take weeks.

I know this because Glenn is a photographer who happens to be deeply into birds, and I'm a birder who occasionally takes photos so Glenn won't think I'm making stuff up when I see something he doesn't.

But when the Roseate Spoonbill first showed up in the Santa Ana River in Orange on Thursday, we both knew we had to see it. It had everything both birdheads and photographers could want: It's a rarity. It would be a lifer for both of us. It's big, pink, and pretty. And it's here.

Since I work at home of Fridays, I set off first thing Friday morning to find it: I knew I was in the right place because of the large number of people with spotting scopes and binoculars pacing up and down the bike path. But after several hours, no one had seen it, and I gave up. After all, I was supposed to be at home working.

Today, both of us headed back to Orange, chasing reports that it had been seen downriver late Friday afternoon. Someone told us it had actually been seen a few minutes earlier UP the river, so we returned to our car and followed a caravan of birders to the intersection of Lakeview and Riverdale. There, we learned that the darned thing had been spotted napping nearby earlier, but had just taken off.

Nevertheless, we slogged up the path, Glenn hauling his usual ton of photo gear, hoping the Spoonbill would return. Several people decided to cross the river to see if it was foraging on the channel on the other side. We started heading back to the car. Sigh. This is precisely the sort of birding that photographers hate.

I debated crossing the river to see what was there, but I knew Glenn didn't want to drag his gear all the way back up the path and across the berm spanning the river. We agreed that I'd go and wave back to him if I saw anything.

Just as I turned to go, something big and pink flew up from the channel: the Spoonbill! Glenn immediately started shooting away—and it circled around and landed in the river, just in front of us!

And I realized that we had totally lucked out: had we given up and left a moment sooner, we would have missed it. Had we persisted and crossed the river with the other birders, we also would have missed that great close-up view of him. We only got to see it because we were slothful and indecisive—too indecisive to even give up.

It's a rare moment when one's vices become virtues—and we plan to enjoy it.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bling of Brightwater

Through the glass darkly: Everything you want in a shorebird, and so much less!

Sometime last week, Glenn and I were talking about the Wall of Death surrounding the Brightwater development at Bolsa Chica, and the conversation went off on a weird tangent.

"'Brightwater.' That reminds me of that film Ring of Bright Water," Glenn said.

I told him it sounded vaguely familiar, but I hadn't seen it. "What's it about?"

"It's about this man who keeps a wild otter as a pet, and it trashes his house."

"And then what happens?"

"He lets it go, and it gets killed."


I knew there had to be a moral in there somewhere.

The Wall of Death has been getting ample coverage, both from the Orange County Register and the Los Angeles Times , as well as through several other local outlets. And with this coverage comes the inevitable backlash: How could you idiots be so worried about a handful of birds when there are so many Really Important Adult Matters at stake?

These Really Important Matters fall into two groups (1) homelessness/the war in Iraq/health care and (2) Property values. Yes, I know world peace is a more urgent goal than taking down a glass wall in Huntington Beach, but birders have the knowledge and resources to do something about the latter and not the former. And I've noticed that those who invoke intractable social problems to trivialize birders' concerns are generally not the ones doing a whole lot to solve these big problems, either. So no, I don't feel like a moral midget.

And as for the second kind of Really Important I mentioned to another birder this weekend during another Sea and Sage walk along the wall, it seems that just about any kind of selfish, unsafe, or antisocial behavior instantly becomes acceptable if one utters the magic words PROPERTY VALUES! (You're having Nelson Mandela as a house guest next weekend?! BUT WHAT ABOUT MY PROPERTY VALUES???).

And as a letter-writer to the Times noted today, it's ironic that people will be paying a premium to live by a nature reserve, but will be blocked off from it by a wall that kills exactly what makes the reserve special.

To their credit, the Brightwater people have installed a windscreen behind the chain-link fence that they recently erected behind the glass wall. And they promise to cover the glass wall with decals that are unobtrusive to the human eye, but reflect ultraviolet light conspicuous to birds. The Audubon conservationist leading our last two walks along the wall says these have proven effective in some cases in preventing bird collisions.

I do hope this works, and unlike A Ring of Bright Water, this Brightwater epic will have a happy ending. The worst-case scenario will be like the movie: some wild force cannot be tamed, or made compatible with suburban life. And everyone involved will suffer because of it.