Day 35- Birdwatch

IMG_1223#322, Birdwatch

This morning at the Theodore Payne Nursery in Sun Valley, it was 1st Thursday.

On the first Thursday of each month (through June) you can join Ken Gilliland, a passionate local birder, for an easy morning ramble on the Theodore Payne Foundation’s scenic canyon land where more than 50 different species of birds have been spotted. Ken is an accomplished birdwatcher and avian artist.


IMG_6330The foundation is located on 22 acres of canyon land and has a full-service native plant nursery, seed room, book store, art gallery, demonstration gardens and hiking trails. It is open to the public year round. They offer classes for adults and families, friendly on-leash dogs are welcome, and there is no admission charge.

IMG_6310I have always been fascinated with people who can identify a species of bird by hearing it’s song. Ken did this several times during our walk, and could even duplicate the song of mourning doves and a few others. It makes me happy to know that there are people spending time in nature learning the songs of birds.

I’ve watched birdwatching movies like The Big Year and A Birder’s Guide to Everything, and I’ve even toyed with going to Morro Bay for the annual Morro Bay Bird Festival. Of course, the fact that people have a LIST of birds they want to see that they can check off over time… well, you KNOW that appeals to me. If you have an interest in beginning “birding,” here’s a great article that’ll tell you how to get started.

Here in Los Angeles, we are on the Pacific Flyway. The Pacific Flyway is a major north-south flyway for migratory birds in America, extending from Alaska to Patagonia. Every year, migratory birds travel some or all of this distance both in spring and in fall, following food sources, heading to breeding grounds, or traveling to overwintering sites. Some bird species are visible during parts of the year, and other parts of the year they are migrating north or south. Birders know these “schedules” so well, that if a species shows up early or late, they know that it can be an indication of an early spring or an extra hot summer, or other weather anomaly.

Coming up on February 12-15, is a Great Backyard Bird Count, it’s a fun way to get kids involved in birding and conservation, as birders of all ages can participate. You can help in just 15 minutes a day, over a four day period. Scientists can’t be everywhere, so these counts prove useful in gauging bird populations. Go to the website for more information.

On May 7, 2016, it is BirdLa Day, a county wide celebration of birds. Find out more here.

I became interested in birds as a child. My mother was taking a college class at a local community college, and we spent our weekends taking drives with my stepdad through the eastern Sierras. One weekend my mom had been given an assignment to take a field guide out to nature and try to find and identify different species of birds. I was fascinated with the project. I loved trying to spot unusual birds and look them up in the field guide.

Over the years, I have never become an avid bird watcher, but on hikes I have kept my eyes open to see what is flitting about. Whenever I have happened upon a covey of quail or seen a roadrunner darting across my path, it feels special- like a secret I’ve unearthed.

Years ago when we were in Costa Rica, vacationing in the rainforest, we saw toucans and scarlet macaws flying around as commonly as crows. In the cloud forest we saw hundreds of hummingbirds that sped past our faces at alarming speed, sometimes so close that we could feel their feathers whip across our cheeks.

Locally, at Malibu Creek, I’ve seen scores of acorn woodpeckers in an oak grove and watched them hide acorns in the holes they’ve made in the tree, creating their own granaries. Not far from there, I saw flocks of noisy green parrots, that our guide described as lost pets that had multiplied.

So I was pleased to go on a bird walk this morning with a local expert. As I drove up, I saw Ken waiting for us in the parking lot. He had a large scope with him and it was trained on a Cooper Hawk. There were only four of us on the walk, and Ken seemed surprised, but I smiled to myself thinking of my son, Joseph’s, comment this morning when I told him where I was going, “Uh yeah, I’d rather go to school and that’s saying something.”

It was exciting to see the Cooper Hawk (even Joseph would have liked it), and with Ken’s scope I could see so many details and colors. We headed out along the path which went through the nursery, spotting a few birds as we went. The longest lens I have is a 100-300mm, so I couldn’t get too close, but I could at least see what he was pointing at.


We watched this female Anna’s hummingbird for a bit while Ken told us about the important role of native plants in attracting birds to your yard. Native plants (as opposed to your Home Depot hot house plants) attract native insects which in turn attract native birds. He told us that there are four main ways to attract birds to your yard: water, cover, food source, and nesting areas. When someone in our group asked Ken if bird feeders upset the natural balance of things, he responded by saying that we have destroyed so much natural habitat already, feeding birds at this point will only strengthen the birds that are left. Having a regular food source might enable them to grow to healthier populations.

I told Ken how much trouble I had identifying a few of the birds last month, and he said that Cornell Labs, the national leader in ornithology, identifies birds first by sound, then by behavior, and lastly by look. Many species look very different as juveniles as they do as mature birds, and this makes identification even more challenging. This Audubon guide is also helpful.

Our bird walk ended in the nursery, where Ken taught us a bit about native plants. I feel inspired to begin reducing the amount of (brown) grass in our yard and introduce some pretty natives that might actually thrive in our grumpy clay soil.

It was a beautiful way to spend a morning.


330 days to go!

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