Friday, July 25, 2008
The Beach Boys
Beach birding. Left to right: Chris West, John Garrett, me.
What is a birding trip to Orange County without a jaunt to the beach? Not much. That's precisely why I took Chris West, a visiting young birder from Wisconsin, to the beach and other coastal areas on Monday. John Garrett, a young birder from Pasadena, tagged along as well. As one might expect, coastal areas are home to a large number of species that are rarely, if ever, found inland.
Our first stop was Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach. I go there very often, and for a good reason: it is a fabulous birding spot. One of the few remaining coastal estuaries in southern California, it attracts a wide variety of water birds. I've never had a bad day of birding at Bolsa Chica, and I've come to the conclusion that there is always something interesting to see there. Monday was no exception to this rule.
Perhaps the most noticeable residents of Bolsa Chica are the ever-present Elegant Tern. Thousands of pairs nest there, and white clouds of terns covered the islands and hovered over the water. The shrill cries of the distant birds blended together into a deafening roar, and birds flying directly overhead gave harsh ker-ick! calls. Chris gawked at them, and for a good reason; he had never seen one, let alone ten thousand. John and I chuckled, but it is impossible not to be amazed by them no matter how many times you see them.
Another denizen of Bolsa Chica is the Snowy Plover. These tiny plovers are much less noticeable than the Elegant Terns; the pale sandy color of their upperparts closely matches the color of the sand they live on. I was very surprised to find two Snowy Plovers - one a fuzzy chick, and the other an adult - running around in the small sandy area by the end of the boardwalk, out of the fenced off nesting area for the plovers and terns. The juvenile, impossibly cute with those huge ebony eyes, was running around like a little wind up toy.
The adult Snowy Plover was just as entergetic as it attempted to keep the kid in order. It seemed to be keeping a wary eye on a couple Black-crowned Night-Herons loafing nearby - a juicy baby plover would make a good meal for a big, bad night-heron.
Finally we tore ourselves away and walked over to the first overlook. Teenage Least Terns were still bumming around their nests, impatiently waiting for their meals to be delivered to them by their hardworking parents. Some of the juvenile Least Terns decided that the trail made a very comfortable spot to wait for their meals, and they wouldn't budge until we were within a few feet of them. This provided an excellent photo opportunity for us.
The adjacent mudflats were teeming with shorebirds. Western Sandpipers swarmed over the mud like tiny mice, chittering at each other and squabbling over the best feeding spots. Lesser numbers of other shorebirds, including Greater Yellowlegs, Short-billed Dowitcher, Black-bellied Plover, and Least Sandpiper were also present. A handful of Long-billed Curlews strutted amongst the smaller shorebirds, reaching deeply buried food inaccessible to the shorter-billed shorebirds.
At last we managed to tear ourselves away from all the wonderful shorebirds and terns and headed for other birding spots. Next on the agenda was Talbert Marsh, an obscure little saltmarsh tucked away near the mouth of the Santa Ana River. A Gull-billed Tern had been hanging around here, and we were anxious to see it. Gull-billed Terns are rare visitors to Orange County. Happily, I spotted it resting on a mudflat after only a few minutes of scanning. We all enjoyed quick looks before walking back to the car.
A quick spin through Upper Newport Bay didn't produce much, so we hit Crystal Cove State Park. Crystal Cove boasts an exquisite stretch of beach, alternating between rugged rocky areas and beautiful sandy spots. Chris was excited to see his first Heerman's Gulls, while John and I yawned and scanned the beach for something more unusual. They are neat-looking gulls, however common they are along the beach.
A walk up the beach produced a mixed flock of Black Turnstones (lifer for Chris) and Ruddy Turnstones foraging amongst the washed-up seaweed. After scouring the ocean a bit more in hopes of seabirds, we cruised down Pacific Coast Highway a bit farther to Laguna Beach. A lone Black Oystercatcher loafed on the beach below Crescent Bay Point Park, and sea lions and Brandt's Cormorants rested on the tall rocks offshore. With the aid of my scope, I picked out a couple Sooty Shearwaters far offshore, but they were mere dots shimmering in the heat waves.
In the mid-afternoon we headed back for home. Chris picked up six life birds: Western Gull, Elegant Tern, Heerman's Gull, Black Turnstone, Black Oystercatcher, and Brandt's Cormorant. The coast nearly always has some interesting birds - if you are in Orange County and don't know where to go, go to Bolsa Chica. Heck, the beach is always fun. Perhaps I should start a "Birds seen from boogyboard" list. That could be interesting...