Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Day at the Beach

A Forster's Tern enjoying a little snack.

Spring migration gave me a serious case of bird greed. I was desperate to catch every warbler and flycatcher I could before the summer lull set in. Thus, I've been spending nearly every waking weekend hour for the past six weeks or so out in the field with my bins and high hopes...

Until the weekend before last, when I didn't get to bird at all: instead, I was stuck indoors at a conference my department was sponsoring. Yes, it was a prestigious international conference, and the talks were all original and interesting...but there really ought to be a law against scheduling these things during spring migration.

Then a few days later, the report from Orange County Rare Bird Alerts officially declared the summer doldrums in session. And I had spent the last precious moments of migration season eating cold bagels and sitting through PowerPoint presentations.

So on Saturday, we decided to check out the Least Terns at the reserve at Huntington State Beach instead of looking for (now-non-existent) migrants. They were there in large numbers, and had already started nesting and incubating their eggs.

We also birded the Talbert Marsh and Banning Ranch areas just up the Santa Ana River. In the palm trees in the industrial complex just inland from Talbert Marsh, we found a colony of nesting Great Blue Herons: there were about half a dozen nesting pairs setting up house in the treetops.

Beautiful as they are, these master hunters can definitely cause some trouble for the nearby nesting Least Terns.

In the marsh itself, we saw several pairs of Elegant Terns mating (a process that seems to go on forever—the male Elegant Tern is the Ron Jeremy of birds). On the other side of the river, in the Banning Ranch area, we got a brief glimpse of a Clapper Rail. In the river was a late-lingering male Bufflehead: we found out the next day that it had been captured and taken to the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center. I suspect that this was because he had ended up on the beach, and not just because he was too dim to migrate. Poor little dude!

We ended up spending the entire day at the beach: we got there about 9, and left about 6. And even then, we only left because it was starting to get seriously cold.

Spring might be over, but summer is off to a good start.

Monday, May 26, 2008

I Hate It When This Happens

One of my grail birds for this season is the MacGillivray's Warbler. It's not the prettiest or rarest of warblers, but I've only seen one once, and I decided to make a point of seeing one again this year.

And time after time, I struck out. I did manage to get just about every other bird any Southern Californian could hope for in the spring—dozens of bright Yellow, Black-throated Gray and Hermit Warblers, stunning Lazuli Buntings, noisy Hooded and Bullock's Orioles—but no MacG. Even worst, every birder I knew and his dog seemed to be finding them under every bush.

Glenn started teasing me about my obsession. If we split up while birding somewhere—which we often do, since he likes to stay in one spot for extended periods to photograph things—he'd tell me when we regrouped that he'd seen several of them. Whenever I came home from work, he'd tell me triumphantly that he'd seen a dozen MacGillivray's Warblers just outside the front door.

I knew that during half the times he claimed to have seen them, he had in fact been indoors gleaning important life lessons from Battlestar Galactica, and the other times, he was just messing with me. There was no way in fracking hell he could have seen one.

Then yesterday, he said it again. We had gone to San Joaquin Marsh, and he had settled with his tripod on the path near the front ponds, trying to get shots of an uncharacteristically bold Yellow Warbler. I wandered off in search of the Bell's Vireos I keep hearing, but never seeing, in the back end of the marsh. When I returned (having heard, but not seen, dozens of the little suckers), I asked him how his shooting went, and if he had seen anything special.

"Nothing much. Just a MacGillivray's Warbler."


We drove home, and Glenn downloaded his photos while I made dinner. Then he called me over. "Hey, do you know what this is?"

Oooh, a pox on that little bastard...

The bird, not my husband.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Love Story

Sometimes, one can learn more from watching one bird in action than from chasing down dozens.

For the past few weeks, I've been lustfully (and successfully) pursuing spring warblers at San Joaquin Marsh: Yellow, Hermit, and Townsend's Warblers seem to be everywhere, along with the resident Orange-crowned Warblers and Common Yellowthroats.

Meanwhile, in the front ponds, the ever-present American Avocets are pairing up. Animal reproductive rites can be fast, crude and, well, animal, but every pair of American Avocets we've seen has carried out a lovely, highly structured ritual that could well be a motif out of a classical Kabuki play.

First, the male fights off potential rivals (in the marsh, there are many). The female puts her neck and head down while he gently walks around her, sprinkling water on her with his beak:

Then, they consummate their relationship—a tricky balancing act that not all pairs pull off successfully:

(We did actually see one unfortunate male fail in his mating attempt: he lost his balance and tumbled into the water as his stunned mate looked on. If Judd Apatow did nature documentaries, he would have loved this.)

At this point, the male of another species might just shuffle off (or roll over or light a cigarette). But the Avocets linger together, the male protectively draping a wing over the female. The two cross their beaks, as if to formalize their bond:

I know it's unwise to anthropomorphize animals: for all I know, these elegant gestures have the same emotional import for American Avocets as blinking and sneezing have for me. But if this is so—isn't it cool that something this starkly utilitarian could be so beautiful?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


A momentous non-birding milestone in my life: my mighty little beater has officially hit the 200,000-mile mark!

It has survived two years of Glenn commuting from L.A.'s Miracle Mile district to his job in Irvine, then a year of biweekly round trips between L.A. and Fresno (the year I taught at Fresno State), then three epic round trips between Costa Mesa and Vancouver, B.C. (don't ask), then a seven months of a daily commute between Costa Mesa and Pasadena, and...well, you get the picture. Its only mechanical problems in the 12-odd years we've had it have been related to peripherals: a leaky tire every few years, an occasional dead battery. AND it gets close to 40 miles a gallon. Take that, you Humvee-owning snobs!

It actually started out as Glenn's car, which he got as a replacement for a sexy little Mazda RX-7 that, regrettably, was stolen and stripped. At this point, we'd been dating for a couple of years.

"This time I think I'm going to get an automatic," he said, "so you can drive it too."

At that moment, I knew that he was playing for keeps.

Happy (early) anniversary, dude!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

A Perfect Day in a Parking Lot

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful: A Yellow Warbler at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary.

We started our Saturday morning at San Joaquin Marsh out of obligation, and ended up spending most of the day there for the sheer joy of it.

I was scheduled to lead a tour of the marsh at 9, so we got there at 8 to catch some of the early morning songbird action before the tour. As soon as we stepped out of the car, we spotted flashes of yellow overhead: at least half a dozen bright Western Tanagers flitting from tree to tree in the parking lot.

And that was just the beginning...

At least two Yellow Warblers were singing loudly in the parking lot, along with graceful little Warbling Vireos and the usual noisy Song Sparrows and Spotted Towhees. Orioles darted back and forth high above the parking lot, and in the distance I could hear the waterfowl and shorebirds squawking away.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), the tour ended up being cancelled due to low attendance (the three people who did show up were charming), so Glenn and I were free to bird on our own. There was so much going on just in the trees by the parking lot that I ended up spending most of the morning there. Among the treats we got in the parking lot was a male Hermit Warbler, who was hanging out in the big eucalyptus by the chicken coop in the back end of the lot:

This rather scraggly tree was filled with warblers: at the same time we saw the Hermit, we also spotted a Black-throated Grey Warbler, a Nashville Warbler, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler.

At noon, we headed home with full memory cards and happy hearts. By 2:30, we were bored, so we headed back to the marsh. I wasn't optimistic: could it possibly be as good as it was that morning?

Things didn't look promising when we arrived. It was still hot and the parking lot was quiet. But soon, the sun started to recede and the Yellow Warblers resumed their chorus, and the Hermit and Black-throated Grey emerged for encore appearances.

At the front ponds, things were also quite active. The American Avocets were fighting for territory, the Marsh Wrens were singing loudly, and a few Spotted Sandpipers had actual spots on them:

In this area I got my other good bird of the day: a Common Ground-Dove, who was flying between the ponds and feeding in the brush and grass along the pond edges:

This certainly wasn't a big day by any respectable standard (we got about 60 birds). But it was jaw-droppingly big fun.

As much fun as anyone could ever expect to have in a parking lot.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


One of the few things cuter than a Snowy Plover is a baby Snowy Plover. We spotted several of them at Bolsa Chica (in the fenced-off area just across the footbridge from the parking lot) during a short pre-work birding fix today.

Almost as endearing was a pair of courting Least Terns nearby: one (I assume the male) was desperately proffering fish to an uppity female, who'd then walk in snooty little circles around him for several minutes before deigning to accept his gift.

Less cute was the large dead seal lying belly-up by the water's edge, and the presence of hungry-looking American Crows nearby. We had originally come to find the equally non-cute Gull-billed Terms (which are known predators of Least Tern eggs), but only got passing glimpses of random odd-looking Terns that might have been them. I should have brought my spotting scope.

But... if that little baby Snowy isn't the cutest thing ever, I don't know what is!