Friday, June 27, 2008

Hanging With My Peeps

Yes, I should have put a picture of a Least Sandpiper here. But this one turned out better.

This week, it occurred to me that it has been months since I've been to Bolsa Chica. I had been too busy to go when the Little Blue Heron was spotted there last month, and since spring started, I've been more in a mood to look for songbirds. It was definitely time for a shorebird fix.

I wasn't expecting to find much (next to nothing has been posted on Orange County Birding or Orange County Rare Bird Alerts in recent weeks), and I wasn't disappointed. The Little Blue Heron was long gone, and I saw nothing but the usual suspects. Still, it was like visiting old friends: I had forgotten how pleasant it is to spend time with them.

On the footbridge were the usual assortment of photographers and children being dragged out by their parents for an "educational" experience. The birds by the bridge are used to people, and it's easy to get close to them. The Forster's Tern above let me stand only 4 feet from him, and the Savannah Sparrows were singing only a couple of yards from me:

In the fenced-off area behind the footbridge were nesting Least Terns and Snowy Plovers. Fuzzy little babies of both species were running across the sand like tiny wind-up toys. A nesting Killdeer just off the path did her broken wing display as I walked past her. Black-bellied Plovers were everywhere, and one of them was coming into (or moving out of?) its breeding plumage:

Black Skimmers were also numerous, and seemed to be feeding on every possible body of water. I never tire of watching them.

It had been too long since I'd seen all these birds together. I realized that I even missed that weird Bolsa Chica smell--that odd mix of seawater, rotting vegetation, lighter fluid, and grilling hot dogs from the beach across the street—that always makes me think of sunsets on Sunday afternoon (the time when Glenn and I usually ended up going there). It's good to see old friends again, even if they don't have a whole lot going on.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hot Topics

We spent the weekend with family in L.A, and took advantage of the trip to explore a new, northerly birding spot.

At the suggestion of L.A. birder and blogger Bob Kaufman, we decided to check out Placerita Canyon and look for the Spotted Owls recently seen there.

The birding was terrific—even though we chose the dumbest possible day to go.

I suspected Saturday was going to be warm. I didn't suspect it was going to be record-breaking, head-stroke-inducing (for some) hot. And I had forgotten that the Santa Clarita area is about 15 degrees hotter than Newport Beach/Costa Mesa at any particular time. And that "emergency" bottle of Gatorade I kept in my car trunk for precisely such occasions had already been open for a couple of months, and was now filled with algae.


When we got to Placerita Canyon, the temperature was already in the eighties, but the landscape was beautiful: rolling hills covered with shiny gold grass and clusters of dark brushy oaks--the trailhead looked like the opening shot of a well-made 1960s western. Only a few yards down the trail, we saw the first of many Acorn Woodpeckers, and the first of two shiny male Phainopeplas.

Further up, we spotted White-breasted Nuthatches, unusually fat Nuttall's Woodpeckers, and bright Western Tanagers. As Bob had warned us, the trail to the purported lair of the Spotted Owls was steep and narrow--but also beautiful: it was essentially a rocky creekbed leading to a waterfall which may or may not actually have had water in it this weekend. There was a steady, if small, drip of water all the way up, and it was greener and cooler than the flatlands below.

We saw fat American Robins, nesting House Wrens, a large flock of Dark-eyed Juncos chasing off a large grey squirrel, more Western Tanagers, various butterflies, and strange foot-long lizards that slithered like snakes--but no Spotted Owls. There was tons to see, but since the trail was so steep, Glenn carried his camera and big lens in a backpack, and I carried his tripod--so whenever we saw something cool that was close by, it was gone by the time we managed to set everything up. Hence, the absence of evocative waterfall-dwelling bird shots here!

By the time we got back down to the flatlands, it was well into the 90s, so I went back to the car to recover the single bottle of now-dishwater-temperature water that we had brought along. At the campground near the trailhead, we saw Steller's Jays (a species we don't see at our usual haunts), as well as Oak Titmice and Spotted Towhees. Weirdly, all the birds we saw there were hopping around with their beaks open, like panting dogs. I'm guessing this was because of the heat.

We spent the rest of the weekend chilling out indoors or splashing around in my parents' pool. But we agreed that Placerita Canyon is definitely worth another visit--once it cools off.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Teenage Angst

My, how much you've grown!

Life moves at warp speed in the bird world. The baby American Avocets at San Joaquin are already starting to show their breeding colors through their fluff, and the little baby Killdeer are looking and acting more like their parents:

For reasons I won't go into, the past few months have been really rough for me, and birding has been a source of both sadness and solace. Sadness, because the swiftness with which their lives unfold remind me of how short life is, and how much of my own life has been wasted. Solace, because, well, any world with Yellow Warblers in it can't be all bad.

Some of this year's babies have hit adolescence before I even realized they had been born. At Canyon Park yesterday, I saw lots of little olive-and-yellow birds darting about in the underbrush, chirping strangely. I'm guessing, from their numbers, their size and shape, and their behavior that they were young Common Yellowthroats. Noisy Hooded Orioles were everywhere, rattling and whistling from the treetops. A few, I suspect, also appear to be young ones just getting their adult plumage, such as this not-so-brightly-colored male:

EDIT: I checked Sibley, and found that this is a first-summer male, one this last year's babies.

It's fitting that the birds hit flight-readiness during graduation season. And they don't have to sit through pompous speeches about following their dreams and making the world a better place for the following generations of Orioles/Killdeer/Avocets. Their job is just to be.

Making the world a better place for them is our job.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Little Pleasures

A baby American Avocet at San Joaquin Marsh

Cheapness and sloth have kept my birding outings close to home as of late. For various reasons, I haven't felt much like driving, or taking the $5 gamble of going to one of the OC regional parks only to find it birdless and crammed with partygoers.

And this doesn't seem like the season for finding rarities. Instead, I've been quite content to visit and re-visit my usual haunts, all mere minutes from home, and watching the local landscape shift and change from week to week. After all, if Emily Dickenson could see the universe in a flower (and turn out an admirable body of poetry without ever leaving her house), a reasonably competent birder could certainly stay entertained within a 10-mile radius of Costa Mesa.

So today, it was back to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. I arrived just after 8, and immediately spotted a female Western Tanager on the path in front of me. Further on, two loud Yellow-breasted Chats were engaged in what sounded like a singing duel.

One of the birds I've been trying to get all season is the Least Bell's Vireo: they've been singing like mad at San Joaquin for the past month of so, but I've never managed to actually see one. (They're not much to look at, but it's the principle of the thing...) Today, I got lucky: I heard them, as usual, singing by the boardwalk. After I crossed the boardwalk, the singing got progressively louder: I followed the singing and finally got one of them in my sights.

And even better, I saw it fly into a nearby tree and snuggle up to another bird. I then realized that it was feeding a fledgling!

Baby Bell: A fledgling Least Bell's Vireo

The adult flew off as soon as it passed a fat little grub on to the baby. But the fledgling stayed on for a few minutes before hopping out of sight. I love watching baby birds, and seeing a baby of a threatened species is always cause for hope.

In the front ponds were a pair of Egyptian Geese, looking weirdly sinister as usual. The baby Avocets look more and more grown up, and feed with the same sideward bill-sweeping motion as their parents.

I went home at noon, just as it started getting seriously hot. It's great knowing that one can find such great little surprises so close to home.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Your Batty Old Aunt

Everyone has a slightly loony older relative. Glenn's is an older woman in Texas: Apart from her Texan habit of stretching Glenn's name into two syllables ("GLAY-un!"), she is known for dragging family members to events they're not particularly interested in. Once, after Glenn had endured 22 hours of air travel from his native South Africa, she picked him up at the Dallas airport and drove him directly to—wait for it—a drivers' training course!

Last year, when my first nephew was born—my parents' first grandchild—my other sisters and I swore we'd never be That Kind of Aunt. We'd be cool and fun to hang out with. We'd never resort to cheek-pinching or any other forms of auntly evil.

And last week, I had to eat my words.

We had promised to help out on Thursday night at one of Sea and Sage Audubon's Summer Bat Walks at San Joaquin marsh. Of course, we had totally forgotten that this was the same evening that Glenn's nephew, who had just finished his freshman year of college, was flying into town for a few days of R&R before his summer camp counseling gig began.

So now was our turn to be the dorky aunt and uncle: "Guess what? We know you just finished finals, are recovering from the flu, and suffering from jet lag, but you still have to spend the evening with us in a mosquito-infested swamp looking for bats!"

Thank goodness, he's still talking to us...

We got to San Joaquin a little after 6 to help set up for the 7:00 presentation and walk. It was still light out, and the resident Yellow Warbler was still singing his little heart out.

After setting up the chairs and projector for the introductory slide show, we had time for a quick check of the front ponds. The American Avocet babies had grown visibly since last weekend, and noisy bands of Killdeer worked the mudflats.

The introductory slideshow—presented by Orange County's best and only authority on bats—was a joy. Bats are a surprisingly varied bunch of animals, but all are—counterintuitively—freaking adorable. Some have darling fox-like faces with shiny little button noses; other are weirdly Furby-like, with big plasticky-looking ears and big shiny eyes. And they can fly, and many eat the kinds of bugs that everyone hates—what could possibly be cooler?

During the walk, we volunteers got to hold electronic bat monitors—receivers that could pick up the high-frequency calls of bats and play them back as audible signals. (Our nephew got drafted into manning the receiver that could also record bat calls.) A clicking sound from the monitors meant that feeding bats were nearby.

The monitors clicked a lot. We learned to recognize the erratically darting objects overhead as bats, and there were a lot of them. A few late-feeding Black Skimmers were there, and Glenn caught sight of what might have been a gliding owl.

We headed home just before 10, and agreed that seeing one of the tropical flying foxes with a six-foot wingspan would be a very good thing indeed.

There are definitely worst things one can inflict on a younger relative.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Hot Fuzz

Nothing is more inspiring than the hundredth American Robin of spring!

Spring migration is definitely over, but the spring breeding frenzy continues. At Huntington Central Park and San Joaquin Marsh this weekend, just about all the songbirds we saw were dashing about with beaks full of down and twigs, and pairs of dualing and/or mating Black Phoebes and Downey Woodpeckers were chasing each other noisily through the treetops. Glenn's cameras are in the shop (all the pictures here are mine), all the exotic migrants are gone (no one had seen the Huntington Central Park Yellow-throated Vireo in several days), so we resigned ourselves to kicking back and watching the locals make out.

At Huntington Central, we found Yellow Warblers, Bullock's Orioles, Western Tanagers, and Black-headed Grosbeaks (among other birds) near the island, as well as a very loud nesting House Wren. There were also a large number of singing American Robins.

And the Robins made me think of the weird East Coast bias that seems to permeate U.S. cultural education. It still seems odd to my SoCal-based birding brain that these (and Northern Cardinals) are considered the canonical backyard birds that everyone knows: I only got my first Cardinal last week, and it was most likely an escapee. Robins are not exactly rarities here, but they're not all that common either. I don't remember ever seeing one when growing up in the Hollywood Hills, where we had a ton of birds. I do remember seeing dark brown birds with reddish underparts—which I realize now were California Towhees—and thinking to myself that these HAD to be Robins, since according to every science text and children's novel I had ever read, every red-blooded American had Robins in their back yard! And Northern Cardinals. I figured that for some reason, our Robins were a bit plain, and thought it was grossly unfair that we didn't have any Cardinals. And that we didn't get to go out in the winter and tap maple trees, like the kids in all my school readers. Or get snow days.

It would be a great day for cross-cultural education when East Coast school kids have to slog their way through stories about Dick and Jane assembling earthquake kits, or learning the fundamentals of surf etiquette or draught-resistant gardening.

End of digression.

At San Joaquin Marsh, we lingered at the front of the reserve. The singing Yellow Warbler was still in his favorite spot right across from Pond E. In Pond E, we saw three fluffy baby American Avocets—potentially the children of the courting pair we had been following for about a month:

Uncharacteristically, there were almost no ducks in Pond E. We soon found out why: as soon as any Mallards tried to land, the Avocets, who normal co-exist quite peaceably with them, would chase them off. Apparently, the babies need all that extra space and protection.

Further along, on the edge of Pond C, we found a pair of Killdeer with three fuzzy babies:

They were interesting to watch—Killdeer parents keep a close eye on their young, and the young stay close to them. The little one in the picture above eventually snuggled up to his mother (or father) and tucked him/herself under the parent's wing.

And from all the nesting activity going on this weekend, it looks like more little ones of any number of species are on the way.