Thursday, February 16, 2012


The 150th bird of my trip was, alas, only a common Junco. Far more poetic would have been the Falcated Duck I was chasing. This rare vagrant from eastern Asia had been spotted in the marshes of the Sacramento River, more specifically, Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, way, way off track. Such a mystery, how bird vagabonds appear so far from home.

My own wandering had taken me south from Oregon to Los Angeles, there to meet Rick, whose normal home is a forested, auto-less island in the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. We both were as out-of-place in L.A.’s traffic as that lost duck.

But you chase birds where the birds are, so we followed the San Diego Freeway south to Newport and on to La Jolla, then east to the deserted Mohave Desert. Miraculously, even amid Southern California’s endless sprawl, there are pockets of spectacular nature – estuaries, refuges, parks, and, sometimes, irrigated farm fields that fill America’s grocery stores as well as bellies of hungry birds.

Ibises – thousands at a time – clouded the sky, each in dark silhouette with legs and down-curved bills outstretched. They rose from green fields freshly flooded with that rarest of desert commodities – water. Hundreds of Whimbrels – large, brown curlews – walked the fields, pecking and poking their long, down-curved bills for worms and bugs, fattening up for their upcoming spring flight back to the Arctic tundra. Flocks of mustard-yellow-breasted Western Meadowlarks filled the air with beautiful fluty, tinkling song.

Actually, there is plenty of water nearby in the Salton Sea, but it is stinky and thick with saltiness. The birds, however, don’t seem to mind and make the Salton Sea one of the top birding spots anywhere. White Pelicans and all other manner of water birds visit the sea, protected, in part, by the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. Imagine that – a wildlife park named after the dead Congressman from Sonny & Cher.  
Rick and I drove the uplands around the refuge looking for the one bird I had hoped to add on this trip to my birding life list – a Burrowing Owl – which was supposed to be common in the area. The bird was my nemesis; I had searched the same fields in vain on a prior trip, nor had I found one on my Florida birding trips years ago. For miles, we drove slowly, stopping often to scan with binoculars and scope over vacant fields. Not one owl.

At the refuge headquarters, I struck up a conversation with a young Mexican-American  biologist, just returning from a nature hike with a group of local school children. I admired the green Bullfrog he had in a bowl, complimented him on his work, and agreed about the importance of environmental education. Then I sprang my burning question: “Anywhere you could recommend to see a Burrowing Owl.”

I had come to the right place. He started to give me directions to a spot where he had built an artificial burrow for the owls – basically, a buried box with access via a corrugated drain pipe. “Here, I’ll just show you,” he said, when I confessed confusion about his directions. So we walked – walked, mind you – not more than 100 feet across the gravel parking lot to the entrance. “There,” he pointed. Across a ditch was a white drain pipe angling from the dirt. A Burrowing Owl stood inside, staring back at us. He seemed bored.

It was worth the effort; they are cute little critters, about nine inches tall, soft and chubby, just fitting the diameter of the drain-pipe, fake burrow. “You made my day,” I said, and the biologist seemed happy about that. Rick also was happy, and not only because it was his first Burrowing Owl, too: “Now maybe Wayne will quit bitching about not ever finding that damned owl. He was driving me nuts!”

I don’t know why Rick took up birding when he retired a couple of years ago, but I’m glad he did. I’ve been watching birds since the 1950s, and Rick already can nearly keep up with me. Not bad for an old, creaky, AARP-ready guy. Him, I mean.

Rick and I made it through five days of close quarters and non-stop birding, which is remarkable since we felt like the Odd Couple – Felix and Oscar. I look at maps ahead of time; Rick would rather wing it. I pack the car with precision; Rick tosses his stuff behind the seat. I’m casual tea; Rick’s mandatory coffee (he’s dysfunctional in the morning without it). I want everything “just so”; Rick is, shall we say, a bit more flexible with his wants.

After four days of intense birding, however, I could tell Rick had lost the spring in his step. Seeing another new bird didn’t seem that important any more. But I talked him into one more night, this time camping in Joshua Tree National Park. Few birds, but an incredible, pristine landscape and a night sky found only in the winter desert. Through our birding scope, we saw the line of five moons around Jupiter, and gaped at the cosmic clouds in Orion’s sword, perhaps birthing lives as ours at that very moment.

A just-past-full moon rose over the mountains. Neither of us spoke from its first peek until it emerged almost whole, a bit of the top nibbled away by dark space. Throughout the show, a Great Horned Owl hooted in the distance. Now and then, Coyotes barked like dogs not 200 yards behind our campsite. Only at times like that, with friends of decades, do you talk about the shape of the universe, death, God or not, dark matter, Big Foot, the condition of your prostate, and that bird you keep hearing across the desert night.

Birding is like fishing in that often you don’t catch the thing you’re chasing, despite crazy effort. That’s what happened to us trying to find a rare Crissal Thrasher near Borrego Springs. Our guide book gave explicit instructions on where to hike on the dried mud flats, punctuated by mostly dead mesquite trees, thorny brush, and discarded appliances. I had found the elusive thrasher once before in Arizona, and the habitat looked the same – desolate and a bit spooky. But this day, the thrashers, which streak around the ground somewhat like stunted roadrunners, stayed silent and in hiding. Nor did we locate any LeConte’s Thrashers in recommended desert locales nearly as ugly.

Our last stop en route back to L.A. was an urban nature park, Whittier Narrows (just off the 605 and Pomona Freeway interchange). Once, Cardinals from the eastern U.S. had been found there, but, as we learned, no more. However, the local volunteer naturalist, Lou, had plenty to tell us about all his park’s highlights. And he insisted that we just had to see the pair of Egyptian Geese at a concrete-lined pond a mile down the road. “Follow me,” he said, and headed for his car. There they were, waddling around like any other well-fed park geese. Lou insisted that they were wild birds flown off-course from the Nile Valley, not domestic birds released by someone. I wasn’t convinced but kept my mouth shut.
(photo by Lou Orr)

I will give him this: I was ready to identify a lovely flock of all-white doves that flew over my head as exotic, wild Ringed Turtle-Doves; Lou informed me, however, that it was a flock of caged doves that recently had been released at a wedding party. Later, as promised, he emailed me some nice photos he had taken of his local birds, including the famous pair of Egyptian Geese.

After dropping Rick in L.A., I headed north and caught the sunrise at Malibu Lagoon. Surfers already were out. I looked for Charlie Harper’s house. I’d never seen fancy homes extended on stilts onto the beach and past the high tide line. Think of looking down from your deck into the swirling Pacific Ocean. And worrying constantly about your multi-million-dollar home washing out to sea in a storm, or shaking into the water when the Big One comes. Those poor people.

Malibu gulls
Rick promised me I would be “stepping over” Snowy Plovers on Malibu’s beach, and that’s just what happened in the barely-dawn light. A threatened species, they are lucky to be so adorable – tiny white puff balls with big black eyes, pattering over the dry sand, rather than hanging out by the water’s edge like most shorebirds. Saving them means prodigious efforts up and down the coast to protect their nesting beaches – restricting ORVs, dogs, and even birders, and protecting them from predators. It sure seems worth it to me.

On my ninth and last day of winter birding across Southern California, I discovered my chance to see the super-rare Falcated Duck. It looks a lot like our native Green-winged Teal, with a similar iridescent green and bronze head. But the Falcated Duck is bigger and has long, sickle-shaped wing feathers (hence the name), and white under its throat. At least, that’s what the book says. I stared at hundreds of Green-winged Teal in the refuge, but, talk about looking for a needle in a haystack – I could never turn one into the Asian visitor.

My birding trip’s highlight wasn’t even a bird. Instead, it was the sight of a thousand elephant seals on the beach north of San Simeon. The big males, weighing as much as my fully-loaded SUV, roared and sparred in the surf, killing time until the pups leave their mothers and the big boys' important business of copulating can resume.

I drove the coast all the way from L.A. to Monterey, passing spots I last had seen from my Harley in the Seventies. There was Lucia, where in 1967, the Summer of Love, I had spent one memorable night in a commune. And there was that beach near Big Sur where I had slept on my 21st birthday and accidentally set the beach grass on fire. California Dreamin’. Another story for another time.

~ ~ ~

Wayne's Blog -- Home Page & Index


  1. Sounds like you and Rick had a great trip! My "Egyptian Geese" were a pair that migrate from the north, southward from year to year. I have seen them at Doheney State Beach in San Juan Capistrano (a pair), San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary, Irvine (a pair), and many years ago.. 7 I believe, there were six EGGE at the same park at Whittier Narrows. I do believe these are all decendants of geese from the Nile Valley that are several generations removed after flying off course and not just two escapees. I can only hope that I am right on this... lol.

    Lou Orr

  2. Well, I would have enjoyed accompanying you two (I think...)on this trip. Nice juxtaposition of the WalMart couple and the elephant seals.

    Geezer Al