Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Long Goodbye

A bird you won't find in Florida: A Hooded Oriole .

For the past few weeks, I've been in an eating frenzy: Dim sum. Tlayudas. Pinakbet. I love ethnic food—the hotter and weirder, the better. And I have to get as much of it as I can now, because in three weeks, I won't be able to get any. I'll be hopping on a plane out of LAX at some ungodly predawn hour and heading to Gainesville, Florida, and my new job at the University of Florida.

The job seems great (my soon-to-be colleagues have been fantastically friendly and helpful in our e-mail correspondence), the birding in Florida is, of course, awesome, but my heart has been in my stomach since I signed the contract. When I applied for the job last spring, it looked like no other teaching positions in my field would opening up locally this year, and since Glenn's current job is only a temporary contract gig, one of us had to get something a bit more stable, even if it meant leaving the area. This was the last thing I wanted to do: I grew up in So Cal, my family is here, and all my beloved birding spots are here—not to mention my favorite banh mi place with an only-in-California accessory, a trilingual English/Spanish/Vietnamese menu.

Sympathetic friends who knew of our plight all told us that maybe it was time for a change, and something interesting and different was no doubt right around the corner. And they were right. I can always come home to visit, and convince my sisters and parents that they really, really need to visit Disney World on a regular basis. And what's not to like about teaching at a school that has real live alligators and breeding Limpkins right on campus?

This would be a most excellent adventure except for one thing: Glenn will have to stay behind, at least through the end of the year, because of his job. Birding without him won't be quite as much fun, no matter how many lifers I get. And getting all my crap across the country and moving sight unseen into a new town without him won't be much fun either.

So in the meantime, we've been enjoying our local sites together, even in the midst of the summer doldrums. Knowing I only have a few more weeks of California birds, I decided to spend as much time with them as I can. Yesterday, we returned to Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Modjeska Canyon, a sweet little place we hadn't visited in a while. There, we saw a pair of bright Hooded Orioles, and several Band-tailed Pigeons:

One of the sanctuary staffers told us that the resident Band-tailed Pigeons all perished in the Santiago fire last year, and only recently had more started to move in. It was fun seeing them again. We had always had good luck finding Mountain Chickadees and White-throated Nuthatches at Tucker, but none were in evidence yesterday. Instead, I was happy just to smell the wild sage and listen to rustle of oaks and sycamores in the hot wind: the smell and sound of a Southern California summer.

Even a particularly humdrum afternoon at Bolsa Chica made me sentimental. On the mesa, a pair of California Towhees were engaged in an odd fight/chase whose purpose we couldn't quite figure out: Were they mating? Fighting? Some kind of territorial dispute? Here's one of them after the event:

I normally wouldn't think of posting a Cal Towhee here. But right now I'm not taking any of our local critters for granted.

I haven't left yet, and I'm already homesick.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Back, and Bittern Ever

A Least Bittern at Laguna Niguel Regional Park.

One of the best treats a birder can have is the company of better birders. Glenn and I are still young in terms of our birding experience, but have had the good fortune to run in the same circles with some amazingly skilled people. One couple in particular jumps to mind: about two years ago, we started running into them on almost a weekly basis, in sites as diverse as Huntington Central Park and the Antelope Valley. Then they'd disappear, like migrating warblers, and like said warblers, reappear on a regular basis a few months later.

It had been a while since we'd run into them, and couple of weeks ago, we started noticing this. "Wow, I wonder what happened to John and Joan?," we asked each other. And then, last week, they resurfaced at the Huntington Beach Least Tern Reserve. We chatted for a while, then split up. They promised to let us know if they found anything interesting.

And they kept their promise: about an hour later, Joan came running back to us, announcing that they had found a Gull-billed Tern in nearby Talbert Marsh. We followed her back. and the bird was still there.

In our earlier chat, they mentioned in passing another local finding: a Least Bittern in Laguna Niguel Regional Park. We hadn't been there in a while, and it's a great place to see Orioles when they're here (they've been abundant everywhere else I've looked as of late), so we decided to check it out.

And we got lucky: the Bittern was exactly where they said it was, by the bridge over the creek at the top of the hill. The bird was surprisingly cooperative (at times): it moved at a slow, gracefully deliberate pace, grasping the reeds with its impossibly long toes:

We heard, but didn't see, any of the local Orioles. Lots of juvenile Black Phoebes and Common Yellowthroats were jumping about in the low bushes and reeds. We also got some good looks at a Blue Grosbeak, who was flying about and occasionally feeding a squeaking fledgling:

We lingered by the creek for a few hours, watching both birds and keeping an eye out for other possible birds of interest. By now, it was almost 1:30, and the smell of grilling carne asada from one of the picnic areas was making me hungry to the point of distraction. I'm sure the loud xenophobic rant about illegal aliens from a neighboring picnic area was just jealousy about having nothing but cold peanut butter sandwiches and juice boxes for lunch.

We packed up and found a nearby In-N-Out, where I accidentally ordered just cheeseburgers instead of Double-Doubles (I wondered why it was so cheap...). As we ate, I gave mental thanks to the opportunities we've had to see interesting birds, and the kind people who've taught us about them.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

An Interesting Tern

Today, we got a break from the summer birding doldrums, and got a life bird: a Gull-billed Tern. There have been reported local sightings of the birds every few weeks for the past few months—mostly at Bolsa Chica—but only today did we finally get one.

The only bad news was the location where we saw it: in Talbert Marsh, just across PCH from the Huntington State Beach Least Tern Reserve. Gull-billed Terns in San Diego—the northern end of their normal range—have apparently been eating up a dangerous proportion of that area's Least Tern chicks and eggs, and there has been some concern that they'd bring that regrettable habit north with them. Fortunately, though, this year's Least Tern babies have already grown into fledglings (thus, I'm guessing they're too big for a Gull-billed Tern to take out), and this particular bird seemed content to eat snails and other shellfish plucked from the mud in the marsh:

We also noticed that the bird was banded—the band isn't visible in these pictures, and unfortunately, wasn't legible in the shots where we could see it. Obviously, we're not the only ones taking a close interest in his whereabouts!

The Incredible Six-Legged Plover!

We spotted this unusual Snowy Plover at Bolsa Chica last weekend. It, along with several other Snowys and nesting Least Tern families, were in the fenced-off area by the inland end of the footbridge.

I always suspected that no good would come from birds breeding in an abandoned oil field.

Okay, here's what was really going on...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Stuff White Birds Like

1. Routine

Every time I've gone running in Fairview Park in Costa Mesa over the past three weeks, this albino Rock Pigeon has been perched within the same 15-foot radius. He/she is not at all afraid of people—perhaps an escapee?

2. A good meal

This Snowy Egret was chowing on the banks of the lower Santa Ana River, just inland of the Huntington State Beach Least Tern Reserve last weekend. I like how so many parks and nature preserves use herons and egrets in their promotional literature to show how tranquil and gentle the natural world is—ignoring the fact that these birds are, in fact, gluttonous killers!

3. Their kids

This juvenile Least Tern was wandering around one of the front ponds at San Joaquin marsh yesterday, along with a couple of other fledglings and several adults. It is mature enough to fly ( Least Terns don't nest at San Joaquin), so must have been strong enough to make its way from its nesting grounds—I'm guessing Huntington State Beach or Bolsa Chica—to the marsh. But he or she is still not up to hunting independently. Here, he or she is waiting for a parental handout.

4. Friends of color

This leucistic California Towhee was foraging at Huntington Central Park today with a couple of normal California Towhees. They seemed to get along just fine—unlike the squabbling groups of Common Yellowthroats and House Wrens chasing each other through the bushes in the same area.

There's probably a lesson in there, somewhere!