Saturday, March 27, 2010

Get in the Zone

Yesterday was good
Why? I saw a Zone-tailed Hawk
Circling o'er the hills

It's amazing what you can see if you climb a hill with a telescope--raptors coursing over distant hills, pelicans circling miles away, people innocently going about their business in their homes...

In reality, I dragged my scope over to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery just up the road from my house purely for the former reason. The back side of the cemetery offers panoramic views of the adjacent Villa Park Flood Control Basin as well as the lower foothills. My foremost target bird was Swainson's Hawk; small numbers of these elegant raptors pass through the county in the spring, though a heavy dosage of luck is needed to score a sighting.

Yet again, I came up empty.

I'm not complaining, though, since I saw a bird on par with Swainson's, if not better: Zone-tailed Hawk. A few of these wide-ranging hawks have been wintering in the county's foothills this year. Infuriatingly, one has been spotted several times a mere half-mile away from my house at Irvine Regional Park. I was lucky enough to see one several miles away near Orchard Hills (possibly the same bird--if it is, he patrols a very large territory!), but missing a bird so close to home is like losing a home game.

I've kept my eyes skyward, checking every Turkey Vulture, but every Turkey Vulture turned out to be a Turkey Vulture. So, my heart accelerated when I noticed a big, blackish raptor that didn't look quite like a vulture, circling over the hills just north of Irvine Regional Park...

Groping for the zoom ring, I cranked up the magnification on my scope and peered at the circling bird. Big...and a Turkey Vulture. It just didn't feel right...

For one thing, its bill looked yellow. Vultures have pale bills, but they look whitish from a distance. Also, I couldn't see its red head. True, it was distant, but I could make out the naked heads of vultures at similar distances. Zone-tailed Hawks have a bright yellow cere...

Then in banked. It still looked like a vulture--though I caught a flash of its yellow legs. Vultures have dull grayish-flesh legs; Zone-tailed Hawks have yellow legs...

My pulse began to race for real. Carefully scrutinizing the lazily gliding and circling bird, other characteristics began adding up: slimmer wings, more square tail, but something else, too, something that I can't explain. It must be that I've looked at so many Turkey Vultures that my brain was subconsciously detecting minor differences in flight behavior and structure, because I knew with certainty that this was no Turkey Vulture. It was a charlatan, it was a...

Zone-tailed Hawk!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Poking around Peters

One of the primary reasons my family moved to this particular corner of Orange was its proximity to three large parks: Santiago Oaks, Irvine, and Peters Canyon Regional Parks. All are within two miles of my house, so it's easy for me to ride my bike to any of them for a couple hours before or after school. They're decent birding spots--they don't attract the number of rarities coastal places like Huntington Central Park do, but there's always something interesting to see. The first few weeks after I moved were exciting, to say the least...Wrentits! California Thrashers! Spotted Towhees! California Gnatcatchers!

Though these parks have lost their initial mysteriousness and wonder, I still enjoy birding them. Sadly, I've been neglecting the trio this winter, particularly Peters Canyon. Early Friday, I woke well before sunrise for a long-overdue hike at Peters Canyon.

If you have the choice, start your hikes before sunrise. The moments when it is not quite light--sparkling dew clinging to the grass, gray mist rolling through the valleys, the sky glowing pink and yellow--are magical.

Wildflowers offered another incentive to pry myself out of bed early Friday morning. With the warmer temperatures we've been having the last couple weeks, wildflowers are going crazy! (Note to local readers: if you get the chance, drive down the 261 toll road. The number of lupines are phenomenal!)

Sticky Monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus)

California Goldfields (Lasthenia california)

Cleveland's Cryptantha (Cryptantha clevelandii)

California Encelia (Encelia californica)

Parry's Phacelia (Phacelia parryi)

Oh yeah, birds! Mid-March is a fun time of year to bird Southern California. Some of the wintering birds (e.g., ducks) are thinning out, though an interesting mix of winter species remain and early migrants are coming through. I saw relatively few land bird migrants--some Bullock's and Hooded Orioles, three Wilson's Warblers, and swallows, though the latter have been coming through since January. And, of course, the local residents are around, most of them singing. Everywhere you look, you see courtship displays, nest building, even a few adult birds carrying food. Cassin's Kingbirds are always around (the seasonal movements of this species are interesting, since it isn't sedentary--at least some of the wintering birds are different from the local breeders), but always fun to see.

Audubon's Warblers are ubiquitous winter residents in Orange County, to the point that a hike with none detected is almost a pleasure. I like them, though. If you're bored in the winter, there will ALWAYS be a butterbutt to look at. Many of the males--experiencing prealternate molt--are looking spiffy. Apparently their hormones are beginning to really kick in, too, since they've suddenly started singing in the last week or so.

From a purely technical standpoint, it was a boring hike--no Yellow-billed Loons, Bar-tailed Godwits, or Painted Redstarts. In fact, the most unusual bird was a Western Gull--the first I've had at the park. Good thing I'm not looking at it from a technical standpoint. I love hearing the Common Yellowthroat's whitchity-whichity-whichity-which, seeing my first migrant Wilson's Warblers of the year, and watching a male House Finch singing his heart out and courtship-feeding a female. It's part of the magic of birding.

Monday, March 15, 2010

More Wildflowers

This spring, I've set the informal goal of learning one or two new wildflowers every time I get out in the field. I'm learning--slowly, one plant at a time. For someone who never (well, practically never) finds new life birds close to home, it's been great fun. It's not hard to find new flowers, either. The big, showy ones--lupines, poppies, sunflowers--are noticed by even the least nature-oriented people. Once you open your eyes, however, you start seeing different species everywhere. In addition to a couple books I've borrowed from the library, I've been using CalFlora to identify some of the plants I've come across. If you've got a few spare minutes, I can highly recommend toggling around on there for a few minutes!

Amsinckia menziesii--Common Fiddleneck. Irvine Regional Park, Orange, 3/8/10.

Marah macrocarpus--Wild Cucumber. Irvine Regional Park, Orange, 3/8/10.

Claytonia perfoliata--Miner's Lettuce. Irvine Regional Park, Orange, 3/8/10.

Eucrypta chrysanthemifolia--Spotted Hideseed. Irvine Regional Park, Orange, 3/8/10.

Camissonia cheiranthifolia--Beach Evening-Primrose. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, 3/12/10.

Abronia umbellata--Beach Sand-Verbena. Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, 3/12/10.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

To Twitch...Or Not?

If you call yourself a birder, sooner or later you will be driven to twitch a rare bird.

twitching-n.-The act of chasing rare birds found by others, mostly for listing purposes.

Nowadays it is easy (too easy?) for birders to twitch birds. Most serious birders are connected to rare bird alerts and birding listservs. Word of a rarity often gets out within minutes of discovery via phone calls, texts, and Facebook. All the birder has to do is to grab his binoculars (even this step isn't completely necessary, since plenty of other birders will be there to mooch off of), jump in the car, and drive to the place. More often than not, the birder finds the bird, loses interest after a minute or two, and then begins chatting with other birders until someone's phone buzzes with a text about another rare bird fifty miles away. The process is repeated.

I don't know about you, but I don't see the point of twitching. Sure, you get to add a species to your life list, but who cares? I've drifted away from listing. I know my life list is somewhere above six hundred, but beyond that I have no idea. I've allowed nearly all of my lists to fall into disrepair.

Hard-core listing barely counts as birding. The birds become mere objects, worthless once they've been ticked off. For this reason, many die-hard listers aren't even decent birders. I know plenty of birders with impressive life lists but very little knowledge of the birds to go along with the names.

Now that I've spent sufficient time bashing those filthy twitchers, I have something to confess. I sometimes fall prey to the evil temptation. My latest lapse came on Wednesday.

It actually started on Tuesday. As I made one of my routine checks of LACounty Birds, I noticed a few posts with "Yellow-billed Loon" in the headlines. I continued on, seeing a post about a Baltimore Oriole, and nothing much else...

Wait. WHAT?! Yellow-billed Loon?!

I've never seen a Yellow-billed Loon. I've always wanted to. To make matters worse, several friends of mine saw one in Michigan a couple months ago. Of course, they rubbed it in my face...

That's why I dragged myself out of bed at five on Wednesday morning. That's why I battled through beastly traffic jams on the 1-210 near Pasadena. That's why I shelled out eleven bucks into the waiting hand of the grumpy, sleep-deprived attendant at the entrance booth at Castaic Lagoon. That's why I tumbled out of the driver's seat, stretched, extricated my scope from the trunk, and walked to the lake's edge...

I huddled in my jacket from the dawn chill. Sweeping the lake with my scope, I quickly spotted the loon out in the distance. It was darker than I expected. Then the bird turned--and I could see it was a Common Loon.


Five minutes passed. Ten. Then, a huge, tan loon with a pale horn-yellow bill popped out of the water a short distance off. No mistake this time--this was the Yellow-billed Loon!

I made a point of enjoying the bird. When I do break down and chase rare birds, I like to hang around for awhile and photograph, sketch, and simply watch them. I ended up spending nearly three hours with the loon. By the end of my visit, I felt like I had gotten to know the bird. Not only that, I had seen some other nifty birds--Swainson's Hawk, Lawrence's Goldfinch, Rock Wren, and Common Merganser. Around midday, I loaded my trappings back into the car and headed home. As I pulled onto the freeway, driving with a knee while munching on a sandwich, I happily reflected on the loon.

I felt only slightly guilty.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Crap I Get from Nonbirders

If you’re a birder, and if you’ve spent any amount of time out in the field (read: parking lots, sewage lagoons, and dumps) birding, you’ve surely received incredulous stares and dumb questions (i.e., crap) from nonbirders. They mean well, but it becomes wearisome after the fiftieth time. Nonbirders seem to delight in pestering me with trite questions.

Others simply gawk as they hurry by, clutching their small children closer…


I don’t know his name—all I know is that he lives over on the next street. I’ll call him Bob. Average height, pudgy, balding, an overweight black lab waddling at his side—Bob is an entirely forgettable character. I, however, find Bob entirely unforgettable, since he’s given me the exact same question at least four times.

Bob had it coming. The final straw came one day while I was innocently studying a male Western Bluebird in my neighborhood. The scuffing of heavy footsteps on the sidewalk behind me caught my attention. “Hey—how’s it going?” Not recognizing Bob’s booming voice, I turned, finding him squinting at my binoculars slung across my chest. Without waiting for an answer, he immediately continued, “I see you birdwatching all the time! Is it for a school project or something?”

The following day, thousands of people cracked open the morning paper and marveled over a mysterious murder case: an apparently innocent man had been strangled to death with binocular straps.

Call it an overreaction, but my nerves fray after hearing the same query hundreds of times. People ask me this question nearly every time I’m out birding. “School project…school…project…” rings in my ears. Nope, not a school project…I do it just for fun. I sigh a breath of relief as yet another nonbirder walks off.

Until the next one comes along, asking whether…


It was a good day for seawatching—early on a cool summer morning, the sky clear, the smog minimal. Jamming my eye socket into the waiting eyepiece of my scope, I probed the distant swells for seabirds. A Sooty Shearwater glided by, followed by another…and then a Pink-footed. A good day for seawatching, indeed. Then, I heard those dreaded muffled footsteps. I kept my eye in my scope, ignoring them, hoping to avoid another awkward encounter with nonbirders. Soft voices approached.

“Good morning,” intoned a clear tenor voice. Turning, and returning the greeting, I quickly sized up my opponents. A young couple. The girl was a stereotypical Californian: blonde, slim, and good-looking. The guy was garbed in casual clothes, which, by the looks of them, probably had been purchased at Abercrombie and Fitch the previous day. Yuppies, I couldn't help but sneer silently. As they passed, the girl asked, “Getting any good pictures?”

“Sure,” I lied at their retreating backs.

This is a spotting scope. It doesn’t take pictures. Got it?

Occasionally, my scope is mistaken for a gun, or even a missile launcher. I can’t help but enjoy acting the part of a terrorist in such situations. It makes for a nice break from the scope vs. camera misidentifications.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Hire Me!

College looms. Before I move out in August, I need to come up with some spending money for textbooks and other incidentals for my freshman year. Solution? A job. As much as I need the money, I'd rather not spend my summer bagging groceries or clearing tables. So, I've decided to work as a private birding guide in Southern California March-August 2010.

Please visit my new website dedicated to this business for more details.

What, exactly, is private bird guiding? Basically, you hire me to take you birding for the day. Having become familiar with California and its bird life, I can help you find interesting birds you've always wanted to see. For the visiting birder, this translates to easily finding your target birds. California Gnatcatcher, Wrentit, Le Conte's Thrasher, Yellow-footed Gull... are you drooling yet?

Of course, my services aren't limited to the out-of-towner. If you're a birder from southern California and want to go birding with an experienced birder for a day or two to learn from a knowledgeable birder, I can help you too.

That's not all. You'll be helping a kid go to college. Not a bad deal, huh?