Saturday, February 15, 2014

For the Birds

Not all dinosaurs vanished 65 million years ago. Birds are, in a very real way, living dinosaurs, and it's not hard to imagine that this California Brown Pelican, with it's remarkable pale blue eye and elliptical pupil, is a velociraptor relative. © S. Guldimann

"The rest of my speech" (he explained to his men)
   "You shall hear when I've leisure to speak it.
But the Snark is at hand, let me tell you again!
   'Tis your glorious duty to seek it!

"'You may seek it with thimbles—and seek it with care;
   You may hunt it with forks and hope;
You may threaten its life with a railway-share;
   You may charm it with smiles and soap—'"

("That's exactly the method," the Bellman bold
   In a hasty parenthesis cried,
"That's exactly the way I have always been told
   That the capture of Snarks should be tried!")
Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark

Not only is it Valentine's and Presidents Day weekend, it's also the 17th annual Great Backyard Bird Count. The official Conell Lab of Ornithology press release states: “From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, bird watchers from more than 100 countries are expected to participate in the 17th annual Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), February 14–17, 2014."
Anyone anywhere in the world who has at least 15 minutes to count birds on one or more days of the count can participate in the event. Bird watechers come from all over Los Angeles to count birds in Malibu and throughout the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. However, for many Malibu residents a window with a good view of the garden is all that's needed to count an amazing variety of species.
There is a sort of "Hunting of the Snark" quality to the bird count: you may see something stellar, or you may count only crows and sparrows all weekend, despite having seen kingfishers and ospreys perched along the telephone poles on PCH the week before.
No matter what one sees, it's easy and quite fun to enter sightings at  According to the press release, "The information gathered by tens of thousands of volunteers helps track the health of bird populations at a scale that would not otherwise be possible." The count is cosponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada. It's one of the biggest and most successful citizen scientist events in the world and an opportunity for everyone to participate and make a difference.

Birdwatchers of all ages will be out this weekend, armed with hope, if not forks and railroad shares, and with cameras, binoculars notepads and field guides. Nearly 5 million birds have already been tallied as of Saturday. Here in Malibu, maybe there may be white-breasted nuthatches or western blue birds, ruby-crowned kinglets or northern flickers, hooded mergansers or the elusive golden eagles that reportedly roost in a remote corner of Malibu Creek State Park. If you, dear reader, are participating this weekend, please consider sharing your sightings in the comment section here, and good counting!
Around here, you never know what might show up in your own backyard:
I never appreciated just how large the great egret is until one landed in the garden. This spectacular bird can have a five-and-a-half-foot wingspan and stands more than three feet tall. We have several species of egret in Malibu—the showy egret, which is smaller and fluffier, and the great blue heron, which looks like the great egret but is blue-grey instead, are easy to spot year-round residents. The night heron and green bittern live here, too, but are rarely seen in the open. © S. Guldimann
Although egrets are usually seen at the beach at low tide in the tide pools or in wetland areas, where they use their beaks to spear fish and frogs, they also sometimes hunt for lizards and small rodents in fields and even in gardens, and have been known to regard fish ponds as all-you-can-eat egret buffets. © S. Guldimann

Cedar waxwings are sure to make Malibu GBBC lists this year. These sleek, beautiful migratory birds with their distinctive crests stop over in Malibu during their annual north south migrations, taking advantage of gardens with food sources like juniper berries. The birds reedy call is a counterpoint to the laughing song of the robins, and one of the distinctive sounds of winter. They're late this year. They usually show up in late December-early January.  © S. Guldimann

Red-tailed hawks and their smaller cousins the cooper's hawk, the white-tailed kite, and the American kestrel are all backyard birds in Malibu. So are the great horned owl and the barn owl. Raptors, including owls, are beginning to nest, which may be why they are more visible at the moment. This red tail has been keeping an eye on our birdbath. He's a little shy about venturing close to the house, so he gathers courage on the old shed roof before swooping in for a drink. © S. Guldimann
We watch birds, but the birds also watch us. This American robin was less than enthused about being photographed. © S. Guldimann
Unlike the shy robin, the spotted towhee isn't afraid of anyone or anything. It's rusty call is part of the garden soundtrack, as is the rustling sound it makes as it roots for insects and other delicacies in the leaf litter under the trees. In our garden, the spotted towhee likes to eat the bulbs of the oxalis plants, digging them up with its feet and carefully peeling each corm with its beak, before swallowing the tender inner bulb whole.  © S. Guldimann

Here's a more familiar view of the California brown pelican in the first photo. This species came perilously close to extinction in the 1950s due to DDT poisoning. When my parents first moved to Malibu in 1969, seeing a pelican was a rare and wonderful sight. My father used to say that the pelican symbolized hope for a better tomorrow. Unlike its theropod ancestors, the pelican survived the threat of extinction and is today one of Malibu's most common—and popular sea birds. By taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count this weekend, Malibuites can help gather data on pelicans and other avian species that will help biologists help birds.

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