We like our birds, Jerry and I do. But to be honest with you, we like best the birds that we can see from our front porch. We are kind of beyond loading up with field glasses and hats, bottles of water, bird books and cameras and all the rest of the stuff that we used to take when my cousin Shirlee first introduced us to birding along the banks of the Santa Ana River in Orange County.
Shirlee was, by profession, a veterinarian, and she knew everything. When we first started out, what shocked me more than anything else was that I had been living among all these birds my whole life, being native Californians, but I had never really “seen” them. Oh, I saw them, of course, but never was startled enough to say, “Good grief, what kind of bird is THAT?” I think maybe I had always looked at birds along a river bank and said, “Look at the ducks” – not paying any particular attention to whether it was a teal or a bufflehead or a mallard. “Ducks” covered it. The little brown jobs that ran around on our lawns everywhere we lived were all sparrows, as far as I was concerned. And all gulls were Sea Gulls. Birds were pretty much generic in my thinking.
But Shirlee changed all that. For a period of maybe 10 years or so we took Saturdays off now and then to go birding – in city parks, rural canyons, along the ocean, the rivers (such as they are around Los Angeles) and in the marshes, adding birds to our life list. But like many of our other hobbies, as we got older the interest in active participation waned and we mainly watched birds from our porch or through our sliding glass doors.
Several years ago we learned of a book “Backyard Birds in the Inland Empire” by a local author Sheila Kee. This simple little book has given us just exactly the right kind of information to identify whatever previously-unnamed bird that stopped by our house for food and drink. Just this week I spied a strange bird sitting on our hummingbird feeder. It was smaller than a sparrow or a finch, had a longish beak as opposed to a short stubby seed-cracking beak, and was a peculiar shade of yellowish-grey. Although I didn't have my field glasses handy, Kee’s book was on the coffee table. Faster than you could say “Presto Change-o” I had the name of my visitor: Orange-Crowned Warbler.
What did Kee say in her book? 1) Expect to see them in the winter; 2) Small; 3) Non-descript; 4) Olive-green above; 5) No wing bars; 6)Yellowish wash underneath, 7) Thin bill. Another book I referenced said one generally doesn’t see an orange crown. I didn’t. So we’ve got another little bird to add to our yard birds.
Besides the hummers, the sparrows and finches and the crows that are omni-present we have Black Crowned Night Herons in quantity during the dark hours of the night. They lumber around on our lawns looking for god-knows-what to eat, since they are mostly designed as water birds. We had a flock of cowbirds one spring, but they only showed up that one spring out of the eight we have lived here. We have a hawk that isn’t above snatching one of the little guys for breakfast on occasion, and then in March and April we get Archie Grosbeak and the Orioles passing through. They are such a sight to see that we routinely use our entire discretionary spending money to give them exactly what they want for breakfast, lunch and dinner. March and April are bird feasting months …..and then we drop back to crows!
I keep telling myself that one of these springs, I’m going to mosey down to the Santa Ana river bed near the place where the park district has its offices and see what I can see down there. I won’t go unless Jerry goes with me, of course, as there are a lot of homeless people living in the river bed and the last thing I want to see through my field glasses unexpectedly is a human face among the reeds, so I think of Jerry first and a Park Ranger second as my protection. And I’ll also study Kee’s book extra hard ahead of time so I will know what I am to be looking for.
I’d ask Shirlee to go with me, but she moved to North Carolina and is busy watching cardinals and painted buntings in her own back yard.
In the meantime, I’m keeping my glasses and books at hand, spending time watching the feeders we’ve set up to keep the little guys occupied while we look for the next surprise that surely we will see if we are diligent in our awareness.