Thursday, July 15, 2010

Summer: Sewage, Shorebirds...



Pumping my legs furiously, I crest the hill. Underpasses are short but steep; my quads tingle as I crank into higher gear and lazily peddle onward. Wiping the sweat from my forehead, I lean back and stop peddling, allowing momentum to carry the bike forward. I lift up my jersey to feel the cool breeze on my bare chest. Ahhhh—it’s a perfect summer morning: warm, but not uncomfortably so, the sun already high in a completely clear sky.

It would be beautiful, except for the setting.

I glance to my right and behold the mighty San Diego Creek. Creek is a misnomer; it is a large concrete ditch with a trickle of trash (and maybe a bit of water) fermenting in the bottom. Plastic bottles, shopping carts, and algae mats top the menu. The only sign of life is a band of ragged Mallards sifting through the goo. Two dead ones fester in a puddle nearby. I pause and stare at the puddle. I can’t decide whether it’s green or black.

Not only is it an eyesore; this lovely stew smells exactly the way you would imagine it to.

I’ve become accustomed to the sight, smell, and taste of the creek. In fact, I’ve embraced it as a worthy birding spot. Hooded Mergansers often winter in this particular puddle, and migrant shorebirds sometimes stop on the radioactive heaps of slime.

Shorebirds! It’s July, a supposedly boring time of year to go birding. The breeders have been around long enough to become wearisome, and nothing is migrating. Well…not actually. Shorebirds begin sneaking south by mid-June, and by early July the beaches and mudflats swarm with them. They’re not pristine juveniles; the worn adults dominate the scene until mid-August. Still, I enjoy sorting through the battered adults. Each one is unique. This Willet has replaced most of the feathers on the breast, and that one has retained extensive barring…

My ponderings are broken when a tiny sandpiper bursts from a pool of sludge. Breeep? It asks as it careens down the creek. Least Sandpiper! As I watch it disappear down the channel, I try to imagine it on the tundra. Boasting crisp alternate plumage, perhaps it strutted beside an ice-choked pond in hopes of attracting the perfect female. Perhaps it frantically scolded and fluttered by its nest, attemping to distract a lumbering caribou, or polar bear, or shorebird researcher…

But now it’s puttering around a pathetic ditch in the heart of Orange County.

It’s summer. It’s shorebird season.

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