Saturday, December 27, 2008

Crystal Clear

I am fascinated by shorebirds, and therefore spend much time observing them. I am lucky to live Orange County in this dimension, since it is possible to observe thirty species in one day. To find the greatest variety and numbers of shorebirds, the experts recommend that you hit the coastal estuaries - Upper Newport Bay and Bolsa Chica are famous for their shorebird-observing potential. However, the birds are often distant, making photography and detailed observation difficult. When my dad and I visited Crystal Cove State Park this morning, it became crystal clear that this is one of the best locations for photographing shorebirds in the county.

Crystal Cove State Park is a lovely stretch of beach alternating between sand and rocks. Washed up kelp and seaweed is not removed, unlike many other beaches, much to the shorebirds' appreciation. Additionally, many people visit the beach so the birds are used to the presence of humans and often allow close approach.

Although Crystal Cove is best known for its shorebird and seabird-watching opportunities, it offers fine "dry-shore" birding a short distance inland. Even the stroll from the parking lot to the beach can be productive, as California Gnatcatcher, Bewick's Wren, Wrentit, and others inhabit the coastal bluffs. This morning as my dad and I were headed for the beach, this California Towhee gave excellent photo opportunities on the edge of the trail.

My favorite part of the beach is the northernmost part of the park, called Treasure Cove. We certainly found a treasure trove of shorebirds there today. The tide was high, so many of the shorebirds were up on the beach snoozing, like this Willet. He didn't mind at all as I slithered through the sand on my belly towards him.

A Black-bellied Plover (though at this time of year, the British name of "Grey Plover" is more fitting) was keeping the napping Willet company. Black-bellied Plovers are normally quite wary, but this individual did not seem alarmed as I clicked away.

Amazingly, the plover stood his ground as I manuevered closer. When I had wormed within eight feet of the bird he decided he had better wake up and keep a careful eye on me. Look at that enormous eye!

The numerous Sanderlings skittering through the surf proved harder to photograph. These hyper bits of fluff can sprint faster than you can track them in the viewfinder! I absolutely love watching Sanderlings race the waves. They inspired me to invent "The Sanderling Game," which I still practice occasionally. More details on that some other time.

Also running through the surf, though much less nimbly than the Sanderlings, were big burly Marbled Godwits. Unlike the Sanderlings, who try to avoid getting their feet lapped by the waves, the godwits often stride through the shallow water, plunging their ridiculously long bills deep into the sand in search of invertebrates.

Other species of shorebirds that I saw, but didn't photograph, included Whimbrel, Black Turnstone, Ruddy Turnstone, and Surfbird. We headed back to the parking lot mid-morning, satisfied with all the shorebirds we had seen. The only hazard of birding at Crystal Cove is stealth waves, which can easily sneak up on you and drench your shoes if you aren't paying attention, as my dad discovered. For those interested in photographing or getting close views of shorebirds, I can highly recommend a visit to Crystal Cove State Park.


Parus said...

That's where I got those spectacular turnstone photos right?

Neil Gilbert said...

Yeah, that's where you got those "spectacular" turnstone photos...

Squid said...

It looks like you're getting some great results out of that D80!! I see you're keeping it on ISO 100...any noise issues at the higher ISO's? And I think I know what you mean by the sanderling game, if so we played it at Point Pelee to see who could get the farthest south without getting a soaker :P. (I won XD)

Neil Gilbert said...

I use ISO 100 whenever I can (I had plenty of light to work with, so I could get fast enough shutter speeds), but I keep it around ISO 400. I've experimented with ISO 800 etc and the noise wasn't too bad.