Sunday, April 10, 2011


Skaaap! yelped the plump bird as it exploded from a swampy matrix of weathered cattails and flattened sedge. "SNIPE!" bellowed my friend Jonathan, pointing at the fleeing bird. We pressed farther into the marsh, the boggy ground trying to suck my flip-flops off my feet with every step. Sharp cattail stalks scraped my bare legs, but I pressed on, hoping for more snipe. Crunchcrunchcrunch, a few more steps. Then--skaaap! another snipe burst up, an aerodynamic dart of a bird seemingly woven from wet, muddy grass.

Skaap! Skaaap! Another, and then another. Haphazardly they'd shoot across the marsh, eventually crashing back into the vegetation, invisible until flushed again.

Snipe hunts are one of my favorite spring experiences. Don't miss out--the snipes won't come to you. Trudge through a flooded field or skirt the edge of a pond and await that hoarse cry. And if it fails to materialize, enjoy spring anyway: try to spot frogs before they plop into the water, listen to meadowlarks sing, or--if you're lucky--find some Blue-winged Teal to appreciate.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Should've Put a Ring on It

Sprawled over the withering concrete bordering the dark, sludgy pond, I cradled my camera in my hands and crawled to the very edge. Cautiously maneuvering my left elbow to keep it out of a pool of fresh duck crap, I promptly placed my right elbow in a nearly identical patch of excrement. Ah, well--a bit of decoration is inevitable in bird photography; it is a badge of honor. Squinting through the viewfinder, I focused on the black, rippling water a few feet front in front of me. A flash of black, white, accompanied with the most evanescent blaze of chestnut. The drake Ring-necked Duck fixed me with a baleful, golden glare.

Go on any Audubon field trip in November, and you'll probably hear old codgers complaining about this bird's name. "There isn't any ring on that neck," they say as they scope a raft snoozing on a distant pond. "If anything, it should be called Ring-billed Duck." It's an age-old complaint, and a just one too. I've seen thousands of Ring-necked Ducks--my first was in the last millennium--but the only spot I've ever seen their neck rings is Irvine Regional Park. Here, every winter, a few Ring-necked Ducks mingle with the feral Wood Ducks and Mallards, vying for bread crumbs from shrieking toddlers. From a distance of eight feet, that burnished collar is difficult to miss.