Saturday, March 29, 2008

Eat Carefully and Save a Bird

I just came upon this article in today's New York Times (if you aren't a subscriber, you'll need to sign up for an online account to read this; don't worry, it's free!). In a nutshell, it says what many have long suspected: it's best for the environment, and for migrating birds in particular, to buy and eat locally grown produce. Fruits and veggies grown abroad, particularly those grown in South America, are often grown with pesticides banned in the US because of their dangerous effects on birds—including the migrants that North American birders so cherish at this time of year.

I've tended to avoid buying Chilean grapes and other fruit that I know is also grown locally, mostly because I'm cheap and the local stuff is less expensive. (When the local grapes and stone fruit aren't available—say, in mid-January—I tend to stick to apples and oranges and grapefruit; for some reason, they always seem more appropriate in the winter. And did I mention I'm cheap?)

And the article above shows that at least this time, my hunches were right. Just as we enjoy the varying varieties of birds that appear in different seasons, maybe we should appreciate our seasonally varying choices in locally grown produce.

Or we should until we convince the rest of the world that those seemingly insignificant little birds in their fields are worth protecting.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Long March

Spring flowers at Fairview Park

We dedicated our first official spring outing to my favorite walk—one that combines my fondness for both endurance sports and birds: a six-mile, moderately hilly, and very birdy stroll from Fairview Park in Costa Mesa, down through neighboring Talbert Nature Reserve, south down the Santa Ana River to Huntington State Beach, then back up the river trail and inland to Canyon Park in Costa Mesa's westside--then back up the river, through Talbert to Fairview, where my car was parked.

It was a gorgeous day for a hike—wildflowers were blooming like crazy, and the birds were vocal and active for the almost the whole time we were out. In Talbert, a very noisy and aggressive House Wren darted about in the trees only a few feet away from us, and at one point, dive-bombed Glenn and momentarily landed on his foot!

A little ankle-biter ready to attack.

As of late, we've encountered a variety of random small creatures with an interest in stepping on Glenn's feet: our almost-2-year-old nephew, our brother-in-law's cat, and now this...

In the reserve, we also saw and heard White-Crowned and Song Sparrows, American and Lesser Goldfinches, tons of Yellow-rumped Warblers and Common Yellowthroats. We also got short glimpses of what may have been a Yellow Warbler--it looked to me to be too bright and too long and skinny to be an Orange-crowned, and it didn't have an eye ring or any other kind of markings on its face.

We also got both California and Blue-grey Gnatcatchers: the male California Gnatcatchers were in their black-capped breeding plumage, and vocalizing quite loudly.

Down on the river and in the marshy areas of Banning Ranch, Buffleheads, Lesser Scaups, and other winter ducks were still chilling out, not quite ready to leave for points north. Last year, we had spotted a Clapper Rail in the area, and lusting for another good photo opportunity, wondered if any were still in the area. Not really expecting anything to happen, Glenn busted out his iPod and played a Clapper Rail call--and only a few seconds into it, we heard a loud, ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK from the bushes only a few feet away from us!

They were there!

We skulked about by the bushes along the bike trail, listening and watching for their movements. Glenn got a look at one of them peeking out of a bush, but was unable to get any photos. We played the call a few more times, and got a lot of agonizingly close ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK-ACK calls from the still-invisible birds, then decided it would be best to stop pestering them.

Towards the beach, we spotted more Lesser Scaups and Buffleheads, as well as a number of Red-breasted Mergansers. We walked back up the river, stopping at Canyon Park, which was filled with flowers—I'd never seen it this pretty. We watched Yellow-rumped Warblers and Bushtits flit about as we ate a thoroughly unremarkable picnic lunch of peanut butter sandwiches and carrot sticks.

On the way back, we spotted another male California Gnatcatcher flitting about in the bushes in Talbert Nature Reserve.

We had clearly hit the birding sweet spot: all the cool winter birds were still around, the neat spring migrants were starting the show up, and all the regulars were in their more-active-than -normal breeding season mode.

Thank goodness this all corresponds with spring break and a temporary break from my teaching—I'll definitely be out for more!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Owl Prowl

We got two new birds this weekend, but no photos.

Part of our "studies" in the Sea and Sage "Learning California Bird Sounds" class are a number of field trips, which we are gently encouraged to attend. One of Saturday's trips was an evening owling trip to Starr Ranch, which I've decided is one of the great unheralded treasures of Orange County: I'd only been there once before, but have never forgotten how ruggedly gorgeous it is.

The evening started inauspiciously. As Glenn and I left the house (running late, as usual), it was cold and windy out, and black clouds tumbled ominously across the sky. And when we got to Starr Ranch (only 5 minutes late!) it had gotten even colder.

We couldn't have chosen a worse night to go on a hike.

But once we hit the trails (a fearless Audubon biologist leading the way with a flashlight, a CD player and speakers, and a disturbingly large stick whose purpose we didn't want to know), the climate suddenly mellowed: the wind died down, and the air felt agreeably brisk. And the moonlight (most likely augmented by light pollution from nearby Rancho Santa Margarita) made it pretty easy to see the trail without the flashlight.

At regular intervals, the group would stop as our leader played Western Screech-Owl calls from the CD player. And most of the time, we got only a chorus of frogs in response.

Then we got our first night bird—a lifer for me: a Common Poorwill, which had been sitting in the middle of the trail and was flushed out by our arrival. We got a brief look at it as it flew off. Alas, no vocalizations, so we no extra points for our class.

A while later, we played the Screech-Owl call again and to our delight, heard it echoed back, softly. It was audible, but sounded quite far away; I imagined the bird was way off on the other side of the ranch.

Then someone pointed a flashlight into a nearby tree and from behind the leaves glowed a pair of round yellow eyes: he was right there, not ten feet away from us. We were all still, watching him; and he stared back in apparent bafflement before flying off.

As we walked back to our starting point, the moon started to peek out from behind the clouds. The wind had died down completely. On the way home, we treated ourselves to an elegant late night supper of Double-Doubles and extra-well-done fries.

Another perfect Saturday night.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Crystal Cove Update: The Good Guys Win (sort of)

Many thanks to all who commented on my last post. Glenn's photo buddies share John's , Bob's, and Wendy's suspicions that the ban on "unauthorized" photography in state parks may boil down to a revenue issue—so Glenn looked up the requirements for getting an official permit to take photos in the state parks.

He found that in order to get a permit, one needs to have at least $1,000,000 of insurance. That's right: ONE MILLION BUCKS. Apparently, the rules were written with the assumption that anyone with a tripod must be planning to film full-scale Bollywood musical productions on the beach or something. Yikes!

So I took Doug's advice and sent a slightly dressed-up and sanitized version of my last post to the Orange County Register (haven't heard from them yet), and Glenn wrote to the Coastal Commission. This move paid off almost immediately: someone from the Coastal Commission e-mailed him back within the hour, and shortly thereafter, forwarded Glenn's letter to a park official responsible for Crystal Cove.

This began an e-mail exchange in which the official confirmed that the bright line between "professional" and "amateur", for the purposes of the permitting rule, was whether one was shooting for profit: merely planning on posting photos on a blog or having professional-level equipment is not sufficient reason to be expelled from a state park. And Glenn was offered a written waiver that would allow him to continue his sunset photo trips to the beach. Victory!

Yet not a complete victory. Several of Glenn's friends have said they they've also been interrogated (not nicely) by park officials, though none have been kicked out as Glenn was. And clearly some rangers, such as the one Glenn encountered last week, don't fully understand the rule.

And during this ordeal, we thought of something else: most photographers and birders are great, but there are just enough jerks out there to ruin things for everyone else. Such as Wetsuit Boy , the bane of Bolsa Chica photographers and rangers. Unfortunately, Murphy's Law of PR says that people will tend to notice and remember the one moron who steps on nests in pursuit of a good angle, and not the several dozen responsible photographers/birders nearby who actually respect their subjects.

Let's not give them any ammunition.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Missing the Big Picture

A legally permissible image captured at a California state beach.

We'd always enjoyed our outings to local state and regional parks, and—until this week—found park rangers to be friendly and helpful. They always seemed genuinely pleased that we were taking an interest in the local flora and fauna, unlike the usual range of surfers/ball players/picnickers.

But as of late, the friendly helpful rangers seem to have been replaced by evil pod people. The object of their ire? Glenn's camera. He shoots with a large lens, and almost always uses a tripod.

Last weekend at Santiago Oaks, Glenn was standing by the side of a trail trying to photograph something, when a ranger pulled up and asked sharply if he was shooting professionally. He told her truthfully that he wasn't, and she drove off. Quite a difference from the rangers we had met there before, who'd ask us what we were looking at, then spend ten minutes telling us about all the other birds and animals in the park.

This afternoon, Glenn took off to take sunset shots at Crystal Cove State Beach. (I stayed home to finish up some stuff for work.) It's a great place for birds, and Glenn had shot there many times before without any problems. Rangers and lifeguards would drive by often and wave at us.

But not tonight: Instead, one of them stopped him and told him he had to leave: it's illegal to take professional photos at a state park without an official permit. And even if you're not a professional and don't make any money off your photos, if you post them on a website or blog or enter them in competitions, that makes you a professional. Thus, he was in violation of state law for taking photos of freaking birds on the beach!


I don't know if this a new law that just went into effect, or whether they just decided to start enforcing it, but it's phenomenally stupid. Under the definition of "professional" photography provided by the ranger, anyone who takes a photo of a beach party with a cell phone and posts it on her MySpace page will be violating state law.

I could see why they wouldn't want hoards of wedding photographers or film crews hogging up prime beach areas during the height of the tourist season—permits and some kind of advance notice should be required for projects that require a lot of people and space—but what's so obstructive about ONE DUDE WITH A TRIPOD?? On a weekday afternoon when almost nobody else is on the beach?? He's not violating anyone's privacy. He was not making any noise. He was occupying less space that someone sunbathing on a blanket. And he's not a litigious type who'd sue the state if he got sand in his gear—if they were worried about that, they could just have photographers sign waivers; I imagine most would be happy to do so.

The mind boggles.

The other stupid thing about the photo ban is that it alienates the very people the park system should be trying to attract. Rangers and nature photographers want the same things: safe, clean parks and beaches with healthy ecosystems. And all those photos being posted on blogs and photo forums? Free publicity!

Given that The Governator is considering shutting down a couple dozen state parks to help balance the state budget, why wouldn't they want all the free (positive) publicity they can get?

What made this so galling for Glenn was that we are both official volunteer docents for the California State Park system—we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6 a.m. every Saturday during the spring and summer to spend the morning at the Huntington State Beach Snowy Plover/Least Tern Reserve, telling hoards of people significantly larger than us not to step on the Snowy Plovers.

And now, apparently, those people are more welcome at the beach than we are.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Sucky Weekend

Worth the pain: The infamous Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at Santiago Oaks Regional Park.

Windy days and birding are a bad combination: small birds disappear, big birds are skittish, and hats, trail maps and bird guides fly off uncontrollably as you try to convince yourself that dragging yourself out there was really a good idea.

The only thing worse than birding on a windy day is birding on a windy day while wearing hard contact lenses: take all of the above and add the misery of feeling as though your eyeballs are being scraped with industrial-strength sandpaper, and you have the makings of a truly sucky outing.

And this how I spent my Sunday. Glenn and I followed the herds to Santiago Oaks Regional Park--normally a terrific birding spot--to chase the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker reported earlier this week. When we got there, each of us mistakenly thought the other had memorized the exact location where the bird was found. This put us both in a foul mood.

Then the first of an infinite series of grit-laden 40-mile-an-hour gusts hit me right in the face, and before long, every bit of gravel and crumbled dry vegetation in Santiago Oaks somehow managed to wedge its way between my contact lenses and my poor myopic eyeballs. (And no, neither soft lenses nor Lasik are options for me.)

Still, we soldiered on. We heard and saw a lot of the usual suspects (a Red-shouldered Hawk, a Bewick's Wren, both Lesser and American Goldfinches, Bushtits, Scrub Jays...) and we got a brief glimpse of a Red-breasted Sapsucker. We also encountered the Sea and Sage group doing their monthly tour of the park (which we had completely forgotten about); they told us they had seen both the Yellow-bellied and Red-naped Sapsucker, and gave us directions to both.

Now things were starting to look promising: hitting a Sapsucker trifecta seemed like a worthy yet doable challenge, and the wind seemed to have died down somewhat. So off we went.

And the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker was exactly where they said it would be: in the pepper tree leaning over the path near the top of the wooden staircase close to the entrance. Also there were a couple of birding buddies of ours, who as of late seem to schedule their Sapsucker hunts at the same times and places as us. We spent an enjoyable hour together watching and photographing both the Sapsucker and the many just-arrived spring butterflies nearby. We dipped on the Red-naped--but as Meatloaf famously observed, two out of three ain't bad.

A quick spin through Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary later in the afternoon yielded a nice assortment of sparrows: Golden-crowned, White-crowned, Fox, and Song Sparrows were all foraging actively in the leaf litter under the low bushes, as were both California and Spotted Towhees.

But the wind kicked up again and my eyes hurt so badly I felt like crying. It was time to finally call it quits.

But getting a new bird made most of the misery worthwhile. It always does.