Friday, December 20, 2013

Only in SCV: Christmas Bird Count

Somewhere in Placerita Canyon there's a bird called a Phainopepla--there are probably several of them, actually. The males are glossy black, sport a shaggy crest like a cardinal, and look at you with blood-red eyes. While their appearance is unfamiliar and striking, their habits are warm and endearing: you usually find them hanging out near clumps of mistletoe. Indeed, mistletoe berries are a mainstay of their wintertime diet, so you should always be ready to kiss whomever it is you take Phainopepla watching with you. There are well over 100 other species of birds that, like Phainopeplas, call the SCV home for the winter. From Golden Eagles to Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Cassin's Kingbirds to Ruby-crowned Kinglets, we have so much to see this time of year.

This, then, is my annual exhortation to join in the Santa Clarita Christmas Bird Count. It's being held on Monday, December 23rd. The official reason you do the count is to continue the 114 year tradition of counting and identifying wintering birds. The National Audubon Society compiles count data from well over 1,000 count circles across the nation, giving us an idea of how the birds are doing--an annual report card, if you will, that helps prioritize conservation efforts and identify population trends through the decades. But the real reason you do it is because you're a birder and like this sort of thing or because you're curious. If the thought of nature entices rather than repulses, and if you can count without using your fingers and toes, and if you like doing things that are weird but not too weird, then you should really give it a go. Based on past years, here's the schedule you can expect:

400am: The crazies will look for owls and poorwills--birds of the night. (Does anyone have a good owl spot to recommend?)
645am: People will begin trickling into Western Bagel wearing earth-toned attire and clutching binoculars. They tend to flock together.
700am: Count compiler Dan Cooper, a slim and sarcastic father of two who doesn't even live in the SCV, will help two-dozen or so people (most of whom drove in from LA) figure out count assignments so that all the good birding spots in Santa Clarita get covered. There are already birders doing Castaic Lake by this point, but there will be cars heading to Placerita, Bouquet, Towsley, the Santa Clara River, and even urban hotspots like city parks, golf courses, and College of the Canyons.
715am: The flock disperses as small groups. In each group, there's at least one person who knows all the birds by sight and sound, but even total birding novices can help by keeping the list or tallying all the ravens that fly by. Santa Clarita residents are particularly helpful because they can navigate--even people from the nearby SFV are utterly ignorant of Claritan highways and byways. They probably think it's still call San Fernando Road. You forgive their ignorance.
830am: You start running into the dog walkers and joggers, most of whom just ignore you, some of whom look quizzically, and a few of whom insist on talking with you for 5 minutes about the California Condor they just saw fly over and how they see them all the time and how they certainly don't seem endangered (it was actually a Turkey Vulture, you politely point out).
1000am: You keep seeing the same kinds of birds over and over, your list hovering around 60 species. But then, wait, oh, that can't be, but yes, it has wing bars and an eye-ring and buffy flanks so it see a really rare bird and are reinvigorated. The sighting, if particularly good, is immediately forwarded to all other birders who will try to see the rarity for themselves after lunch.
1230pm: With a great sense of satisfaction, you head to Tacos y Burritos el Pato (the one restaurant in town named for a bird) for lunch. You smirk, recalling Lady Ducayne's favorable review of the restaurant, LD being that local food blogger who says nothing in Santa Clarita is good enough and wishes it were all more like LA but never tells you exactly what's wrong with it all. Am I right?, you ask. The other birders don't know what you're talking about, so you just order some tacos.
100pm: Cooper reads through his checklist of bird species likely for the count--there are 150 or so. Every group that observed the species says "yes" (Mayor Laurene Weste, if she joins, will say "aye") when the name is read. "Common Loon?" "Yes" say the people from Castaic. "Common Raven?" "Yes" says every group. "Loggerhead Shrike?" Silence--people shake their heads, knowing this bird of open spaces is having a hard time hanging on.
130pm: The count finishes with ballpark 130 species seen and a total of many, many thousands of individual birds. You are satisfied, and now debate whether you're going to do the LA count, too.

Are you still reading--really? If so, you ought to go. Meet at 7am sharp at Western Bagel on Valencia Boulevard. Bring binoculars if you have them, and prepare to get birdy.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Happenings: Budget Swells, Walker Eulogized, Newhallian Sign Wrath

NOTE: Are you outraged by the new "holiday tree"? You should be. Here's why (or just scroll down to the next post).

Santa Clarita, a little-known Los Angelean hamlet recently thrust into the spotlight when a moderately-successful actor perished on her streets, held its last city council meeting of 2013 tonight[1]. The meeting began 20 minutes late because of the silly theatrics surrounding the swapping of chairs and titles at the end of the year. As a result, tonight's was the first roll-call with the titles Mayor Weste, Mayor Pro Tem McLean, and Councilmembers Boydston, Ferry, and Kellar. The invocation was provided by Boydston, who read from A Christmas Carol as only he could.

Public participation began with talk about signs. Reena Newhall and Jana Einaudi spoke about the oppressive sign ordinances that nearly brought ruin to their fine shop, A Chorus Line. Some brute from the City's code enforcement division came through their doors and demanded that they remove a Halloween sign, which they did. But, as both Newhall and Einaudi would point out, the city's sign ordinances are complex and unevenly enforced. They found numerous sign violations along Valencia's Auto Row (balloons, sales signs, etc.) that the City seemed willing to overlook. "When you consider the car dealers, the sign codes are more like suggestions than mandates," zinged Reena Newhall. There were only a few other speakers. Alan Ferdman used his 3 minutes to talk about the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and Allan Cameron would also begin his comments by speaking about Pearl Harbor. Cameron, however, then segued into the chloride issue, suggesting that it's imperative we defend ourselves now that we've been "attacked" with regard to chlorides, just as America defended itself after Pearl Harbor. It's exactly the same thing, really.

The comments about sign ordinances prompted a flurry of discussion, especially from Councilmember Boydston, who has expressed his many frustrations with sign codes and enforcement in the past. I didn't quite hear all of it because I had to get a live response from another Newhall--Lindsey, that is--who was watching the City Council meeting from Thailand, where she's training to be a fighter (she blogs about it at Vice's Fightland). Lindsey said she thought both Jana and Reena's hair looked nice, and she said of her mother, "She's a great speaker...and BITING." In any case, City Manager Ken Striplin pointed out that the City's is a "reactive" enforcement policy--they only address sign problems when they get complaints. At the end of the discussion, it was clear that there needed to be a more even-handed enforcement and that the complexity of the rules made them particularly burdensome.

During councilmember comments, Mayor Laurene Weste shouldered the unusual task of eulogizing Paul Walker and Roger Rodas after their fatal car crash. It was short and sincere, and she closed by wishing everyone a very safe holiday season with their families.

The Consent Calendar passed with relatively little discussion. A Memorandum of Understanding between the City of Santa Clarita and Service Employees International Union was approved, smallish construction contracts were awarded, and so on. The old Newhall library will undergo $200,000+ in construction to make it ready to accommodate the Santa Clarita Business Incubator and the City's special districts office.

We got an update from the fire protection district of LA including a slight increase in developer fees, and the meeting ended with discussion of mid-fiscal year adjustments. There was a $30M revenue adjustment and a $12M expenditure adjustment--as in the City is getting more money and spending more money than had been anticipated 6 months ago. And in keeping with sound fiscal policy, Santa Clarita's credit rating was upgraded to AAA by S&P. There wasn't too much discussion about budget adjustments, though Boydston did make a point of asking to hear the value of City Manager Ken Striplin's raise (for meeting performance objectives), which was $11,330. The meeting ended around 7:30.

[1]Have I got an agenda for you...

Only in SCV: So Long, Community Christmas Tree

The concerted uglification efforts at the Newhall Memorial Hospital campus have been far more successful than many of us thought possible. But rather than resting on their laurels, the good people at Newhall Memorial have decided to do even more to assault the eyes of hospital visitors with their dedication of a new "holiday tree." The tree is remarkable in its shortness, lop-sidedness, and utter lack of magnificence. Best of all, it's dedicated with a plaque to the Gump family, a name that has long been synonymous with the portable bathroom industry in the SCV. Some are saying this is our community's new Christmas tree, but I contend that we simply don't have a Christmas tree any longer; this piney offering is too profoundly unsatisfactory to deserve the title.

While driving by the hospital shortly after Thanksgiving, I noticed many necks of drivers on McBean arching toward the spot where the once noble Christmas tree stood, gaily lit and sparkling through Clarita's long winter nights. The tree was still there, but there were no lights, no spectacle, no holiday cheer. Days later, I saw a press release published in SCVNews marking the dedication of the new tree. My initial relief soon gave way to bitter disappointment. (Click on the link to see the photo; you'll see why.)

The traditional Newhall Memorial Christmas tree was a Deodar Cedar--they're expensive and regal and classic. The new tree is a Mondale Pine--they're cheap and utilitarian and dull. By way of analogy, if a Deodar Cedar is the Cadillac of conifers, then  a Mondale Pine is the Kia. There's nothing overtly wrong with Mondale Pines if you need a tree for firewood or to plant as a windbreak in some desolate corner. These trees are from the inhospitable regions of Eurasia (they're more commonly know as "Afghan Pines"), so they excel at surviving in dry, hot conditions. And like many scrappy survivors, we applaud their tenacity more than their beauty. I could overlook the choice of tree if a heftier specimen had been purchased, but it's unspectacular in proportions. There was no lighting ceremony this year supposedly because of construction, but I think the new tree's inability to support any decent ornaments is a more likely explanation. It's a holiday tree in name only.

Since it's the holiday season, however, I'll end on a generous note. The tree is real and doesn't block any major pedestrian pathways. The same cannot be said for the garish monstrosity of a tree that was dumped squarely blocking a main path into the Newhall Library. Why is doing a Christmas tree so hard, Santa Clarita, why? If anyone had any sense, they would take a seed or cutting from one of the Big-cone Douglas Firs that grow in the canyons--our valley's only native conifer--and plant it in a spot where it can reach a dazzling height. I guess this year, though, we'll just have to get by without.