My own wandering had taken me south from
to Oregon , there to meet Rick, whose normal home is a forested, auto-less island in the Los Angeles St. Lawrence River in upstate . We both were as out-of-place in New York ’s traffic as that lost duck. L.A.
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.
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
will quit bitching about not ever finding that damned owl. He was driving me nuts!” Wayne
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.
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
Our last stop en route back to
|(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
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.
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