Thursday, October 13, 2011

Only in SCV: Big Day for Birds--and Birders

The Big Year premiers today[1]. You may have seen previews—it’s that movie with Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson about the obsessive pursuit of birds.

The National Audubon Society has, rather troublingly, spent six-figures on advertising the movie to its legions of birdwatching members and potential new recruits, so pivotal do they feel this moment will be in birding culture[2]. Obviously, the movie isn't going to be a blockbuster. It's being reviewed with words like "amiable", "affable" and "pleasant" at best. But I'm a pragmatist, and I too will seize on this moment, ideal or not, to talk about Santa Clarita's birds and the people who heart them...people like me. Really, how often are we topical?

You do what?

People always seem perplexed by what birdwatching/birding[3] is and why we bother. It’s exactly like it sounds—you look at birds and identify them, although any decent birder can also identify species by their calls and songs. Where’s the fun in that?, one rather logically asks, eyebrows furrowed. For starters, over 600 species of birds have been documented in California alone[4]. Learning to identify them and appreciating their stories quickly becomes engrossing. Our humble backyard mockingbirds somehow hold hundreds of different songs in their hazelnut-sized brains. In spring, you can train your binoculars on the night sky to see warblers and thrushes silhouetted against the moon, the merest indication that literally billions of birds are flying by night to reach breeding grounds thousands of miles away in Canada. And at any moment, miles offshore, there is a stream of skuas, shearwaters, and murrelets for which land is as alien as their open sea home is to us. The lives of birds are as diverse as they are astounding.

Another part of the appeal comes from birding’s listing aspect, the basis for big years. There is something in human nature that loves collecting. Tallying lists of the birds we observe satisfies this compulsion—lists of species seen in a particular place, over the course of a year, or throughout a lifetime. It's exciting to pursue birds that have no interest in cooperating with us. But even when not thrilled by the hunt for new list birds, the act of recording our observations gives a reason to be outside, sharpening and structuring our observations of nature. It also constantly renews our passion--this may be the millionth Canada Goose I’ve seen in a lifetime, but it’s the first one one for today.

Finally, one of our core motivations for birding (I hope) is a commitment to conservation. A drive to conserve birds has produced some of the world’s most rigorous examples of science conducted by non-professionals. Breeding bird surveys, nestbox monitoring projects, and migration counts mean we know more about birds than any other taxon of wild animals. It's made birds our best sentinels of environmental change and ideal poster-children for conservation.

That’s the best case I can make for birding’s appeal. But like any other avocation, something just has to click for you to really get into it. Some people are going to get a rush from seeing a Black Swift wheeling lithely overhead or from hearing the call of a drab little bird that cinches its identification as Cordilleran Flycatcher. Most will not. But if you’ve ever been obsessed with a sports team or winning a baking competition or memorized all the lines to some dumb sci-fi movies (no offense), you can at least sympathize with the single-minded, at times obsessive, pursuit of birds.

As for how this pursuit plays out in Santa Clarita, here are three vignettes.

The $11 Loon

The great thing about birds is that they fly (well, most do), and can end up far from where they are supposed to occur when, say, they make a wrong turn on migration. One of the big motivators for birders is the knowledge that some of these birds—vagrants, as they are called—will blunder into our local patches of field and forest.

When a vagrant is seen, there is a predictable cascade of events. First comes a moment of disbelief, followed by intent study of diagnostic characteristics of the particular species, followed by hurried photographing or note-jotting to document the rarity, followed by getting the rare bird alert out over phones and online. Depending on how good the bird is, other birders will hurry out into the field, keen on seeing the rarity and verifying your sighting.

Santa Clarita’s last big rarity was Yellow-billed Loon. Loons are sleek yet solid birds with massive dagger-like bills, stout compositions, and powerful legs. This puts them at home on the water, where they dive for fish. Many species are easy to find, but a Yellow-billed Loon is not one of them. That particular species is really at home in northern Canada or Siberia. But on March 8, 2010, a group of twenty birders found a Yellow-billed Loon on Castaic Lake.

This is what happens when a good bird is found. A posting on the LACoBirds group on Yahoo instantly reaches 1,057 LA-area birders, a few of whom may drop everything to chase down the rare bird.

This became LA’s first chaseable Yellow-billed Loon. I say “chaseable” because it stayed put for a while, allowing eager birders to re-sight it again and again. The sole other record for the county was seen as a fly-by off the coast in the late 1970s—decidedly not chaseable. The Yellow-billed Loon sitting on Castaic Lake, then, represented a first-in-a-lifetime species for LA’s many birders. That’s another key note: California birders are passionate about their county lists and want to add a bird like this to it, even if they've already seen it dozens of times outside the county.

I had to get out to Castaic Lake to see the loon, my drive considerably shorter than the one faced by birders coming from Orange County or San Diego. As I got close to the pull-out, I looked for a tell-tale clump of birders huddled around expensive Swarovski spotting scopes and impossibly enormous telephoto lenses. That’s a sure sign that the bird is still on the water. I scanned and scanned but didn’t see that reassuring clump of humanity. Regretting that I had waited a few days to come out for the bird, I drove up to the parking kiosk. The attendant said hello and apparently noticed my binoculars, for she knowingly proffered a very birderly statement, one that gives the hearer as much satisfaction as the teller: “It’s still here!” After her three words, our shared smile, and an $11 parking fee, I had seen it, too.

Bird-watching pumps $36 billion into the economy each year[5], and here was Santa Clarita’s own little piece of the pie[6]: scores of $11 parking passes purchased by people who had come to Castaic not to jet-ski or bass fish but to stare at a Yellow-billed Loon, their first real chance in the history of birding in LA County. Considering most birders are, ahem, older, the senior discount made it not a bad deal at all.

The Endemic, Rare, and Endangered

Even our common birds are good ones, if you keep a global perspective. In twenty minutes on the Santa Clara River, you can see about half-a-dozen of California’s endemics or near-endemics—bird species found nowhere on earth but California, sometimes a bit of Oregon, Nevada or Baja as well. These birds are Oak Titmouse, California Towhee, Wrentit, California Thrasher, Nuttall’s Woodpecker and, on a good day, maybe a flock of Tricolored Blackbirds (don’t you just love bird names?). For people living outside the Golden State, these are destination birds. They don’t do much in the way of migrating or dispersing far afield, so it’s very unlikely they’re going to inadvertently make it to Florida or New York, much less Britain or Australia. Many of our endemics are rather drab, blending in well with their brushy homes. But what they lack in color they make up for in song, filling our hills with a chorus of chips, chants, whistles, and trills that can only be heard in California.

In addition to these endemics, many of which are locally abundant, we also have some globally rare birds. The endangered California Condor is in a class of its own. It is immense, weighing over 20 pounds with a wingspan of nine feet, an arresting image in flight. But it is another number that’s far more staggering. There are just shy of 200 California Condors living in the wild at this moment; most of us have more Facebook friends than there are condors. Without extraordinary captive breeding efforts and millions of dollars spent in on-going monitoring, feeding, and conservation, they would most certainly have gone extinct. Yet the few that remain are often seen in and around town, especially on canyon drives through Placerita and Sand Canyons[7].

There is something bittersweet about glimpsing a species like the California Condor soaring free. The sight is special for a reason in which you can take no relish: we almost lost them and may still lose them yet.


Let’s close this discussion in the way we close the year of birding in Santa Clarita: with the Christmas Bird Count. A CBC is an attempt to identify and count every single bird in a 15-mile diameter circle in 24-hours. The National Audubon Society makes all of the data collected available to scientists and enthusiasts alike. Some count circles, as they’re called, have been counted for more than 100 consecutive years. A map on Audubon’s CBC website shows that America is literally blanketed with these end-of-year counts, a vast and comprehensive data pool for biologists.

The effort in Santa Clarita usually yields some 130 species of birds. Non-birders are often astounded—maybe astounded is a strong word—by the fact that there are so many species in Santa Clarita. Most of the SCV’s CBCs also turn up unusual finds. Black-and-white Warbler, Plumbeous Vireo, Harris’s Sparrow, and Red-necked Grebe are all fine birds seen on previous CBCs, not typical of this part of California (again, such wonderful names). One discovery, a Painted Redstart, even got local kids birding. It’s a gorgeous creature: jet black with a brilliant scarlet belly, bold white wing patches, and a delicate white crescent cradling its eye. For weeks, one darted among the pines of Newhall Memorial Park, as it would have done in the forests of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains, where it was expected to occur. The kids at the adjacent Boys & Girls Club took a trip to visit the bird, naming it Paco[8].

Christmas bird counts continue annually, drawing anywhere from 15 to 30 people. It’s a mixing of seasoned observers with enthusiastic beginners. This is especially true in years where The Signal runs a story and draws in locals. Otherwise, Claritans are sorely lacking at the event. It may be an odd way to spend the morning, counting the number of Glaucous-winged Gulls on Castaic Lake or estimating the size of a flock of Cedar Waxwings flying overhead or going to great lengths to make sure that we are indeed counting a bird as Red-naped Sapsucker, not Yellow-bellied or a hybrid. But count we do, every year. We put on jackets over jackets and imitate owl calls at five in the morning and slog through mud in pursuit of animals that we love to watch and long to know and have a vague but intent urge to protect for others to enjoy long after we’re gone. We count birds because birds count—to us, at least.

[1]It’s shocking to learn what the movie is about judging from the previews, which made it look like The Bucket List, but with more falling down. Here’s the film's website and generally unimpressed reviews from Rotten Tomatoes.
[2]There is supposedly some Audubon branding throughout the movie, but really, this investment of my dues makes me cringe. A small fraction of people may be deeply affected by movies—say those who perversely got clownfish after watching Finding Nemo or kids who dive into dictionaries after watching one of the spelling bee movies—but let’s be sensible here. This is, at best, a sweet little pleasant film, not a force to spawn thousands of eager new birders ready to send checks to their local Audubon chapter.
[3]People get overly concerned about the distinction between bird-watching and birding. Birding is just shorter and easier to say, so many people use it as their default bird verb. However, it usually connotes a more intense and practiced pursuit of the observation of birds than, say, enjoying “the pretty red bird” that eats at your sunflower seed bird feeder (it’s called a House Finch). Birders are also often the sort who will travel to “chase” rare birds that are reported elsewhere, whereas bird-watchers are typically happy watching most anything.
[4]Here’s the list of all those birds, as published by the California Bird Records Committee. World-wide, there are another 9,000+ species more. Literally no one on earth has ever seen all the living species of birds. Ever. Some have gotten close.
[5]So says the US Fish & Wildlife Service.
[6]Well, technically, the money went to the County, but you’ll allow me some thematic license, won’t you?
[7] LA’s most authoritative birder, Kimball Garrett, reported seeing one from near Vista Valencia golf course this past May, so most anywhere is fair game for a condor flyover.
[8]Paco may have been a girl. There's no way to tell from afar. So here's his/her story.


Anonymous said...

I love to see other "young" people interested in birding. My husband has been birding since he was 12 (now early 30s)- we've gone to the Salton Sea for the winter migration, the middle of nowhere in the Central Valley for the Sandhill Cranes, taken a Gull Workshop with Larry (?), he's taken off work to find a caracara near Hanson Dam.... it does become a fun challange.
He still gets dismissed by the senior citizen birders when we are out in groups - which is the main reason we go alone.
Happy Birding!

A Santa Claritan said...

I remember that Crested Caracara! Awesome bird.

Glad to hear y'all are also toting binoculars.

Anonymous said...

I heart birds, too!

Anonymous said...

I just saw 3 phainopeplas at Mentryville. Is this unusual?

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