Saturday, February 7, 2015

Winter Birds

The gregarious and fearless yellow-rumped warbler is one of the most common Malibu winter garden birds, but it's just one of dozens of seasonal avian residents. All photos © 2015 S. Guldimann

Rich meanings of the prophet-Spring adorn,
Unseen, this colourless sky of folded showers,
And folded winds; no blossom in the bowers;
A poet's face asleep in this grey morn.
Now in the midst of the old world forlorn
A mystic child is set in these still hours.
I keep this time, even before the flowers,
Sacred to all the young and the unborn.

—Alice Meynell, In February

There are a lot of poems about February. Many are bleak and full of snow, and often the poet mourns the absence of bird and blossom. It makes me feel inexplicably guilty, since quite a lot of those lamented birds missing from there are actually here for the winter.

February in Malibu is a paradise for birds, and birdwatchers often find they have a front row seat for the colorful panoply of winter migrants right in their own garden. Here's a look at some of the winter visitors spotted here at the Malibu Post.

The American robin usually arrives around Christmas and heads north again as soon as warmer weather arrives.

The spotted towhee is sometimes mistaken for a robin. This year-round Malibu resident is smaller, darker and shyer than the robin and only has red on its sides, not its breast. Those long claws visible in the photograph help the towhee dig for grubs and other treats. Ours like to dig up the bulbs of the oxalis flowers. This towhee is feasting on the fruit of an ornamental pear tree.

I often see Western bluebirds in the more remote parts of the Santa Monica Mountains, and especially in Malibu Creek State Park, but we've had an unusual number of Western bluebirds this winter here at Point Dume, more than I've ever seen. I hope that's a good sign that the population, which dwindled to almost nothing in this area during the 1980s and '90s, is rebounding. 

The dark-eyed junco used to be a winter-only visitor, but last year these gregarious garden birds decided to stay all summer, nesting near our front gate and making a ticking sound like a Geiger counter whenever anyone went in or out. I'll be interested to see if they stay or go this spring. This little bird has distinctive white-striped tail feathers that are often the only part of the bird one catches a glimpse of as it darts past.

The lesser goldfinch is a year round resident, but we only see them in the garden during the winter, when they come to forage for the seeds of the Mexican evening primrose plants and other wildflowers that have been left to go to seed. 

The oak titmouse is a favorite winter bird in our garden. This tiny bird is fierce and feisty, scolding anyone who comes too close. Although we have lots of small gray birds and they can often be hard to tell apart, the oak titmouse is unmistakable. It's the only solid gray species in this area with a peak of feathers on its head.
Here's one of the aforementioned hard to identify gray birds. I think this one is a female hermit warbler. The male has a much flashier black and yellow design, a little bit like the yellow-rumped warbler, but more vivid, the female is less conspicuous, but a regular winter visitor at the birdbath.

There's nothing inconspicuous about the western kingbird. This large gray and primrose yellow flycatcher is an aerial acrobat—I once saw one snatch a swallowtail butterfly out of the air just inches above the windshield of my car, and then reverse itself midair and swoop up to the nearest telephone line to eat its prize. Kingbirds have a loud, distinctive metallic call and aren't afraid of anything. They've been know to dive bomb hawks and crows and will let you know in no uncertain terms if you stray to close to their territory, snapping their beaks and attempting to intimidate the unwary trespasser. Some kingbirds reside in Southern California throughout the year, but ours appear to be winter migrants, most often seen in February and March. However, this species seems to thrive in the urban setting and in Malibu, at least, they seem to be increasing in number.

The western meadowlark is one of our shyest winter residents. It's easy to recognize this bird in spring by its beautiful call, which you can listen to here. In winter, the usually solitary meadowlark gathers into flocks, but they are almost always silent and can be remarkably hard to spot. Although the front of the bird is bright yellow and marked with a heraldic-style black chevron, they keep their bright colors carefully hidden, presumably to avoid standing out to predators (and photographers).

It may seem an unlikely candidate for favorite winter garden bird, but for me, the swift black wings and the hoarse cry that announces the arrival of the winter ravens embodies the essence of the season. People often confuse crows with ravens, but no one mistakes a raven for a crow: they are much larger and more dignified than their smaller, more numerous corvid cousins. Crows are smart, but ravens are reportedly one of the most intelligent bird species on earth, with complex problem-solving skills and long memories. Most of the year, if you want to find ravens, you have to look in the less developed corners of the Santa Monica Mountains, but in winter they come down to the coast and haunt gardens and backyards. Their presence infuriates the crows, but the ravens don't care. I love to watch their graceful, acrobatic flights, which sometimes involve roles and dives and the raven equivalent of the Immelmann turn—upside down and around. I love to hear their rough, wild cry. We may not have the snow and the dark and the isolation of the northern winter, but I hear it every year in that cry and in the rush of wings.
This post contains a small sample of Malibu's winter birds. It features just the ones that held still long enough for me to snap a photo, recording their passage. 

I recently read a State Coastal Conservancy report that described Malibu, the Santa Monica Mountains, and the entire South Coast region as "considered to be one of the 25 most important 'hotspots' of biological diversity on earth." 

Birdwatchers who would like to help document the local bird population are encouraged to take part in this year's Great Backyard Bird Count, February 13-16. The event, cosponsored by Cornell University's Bird Lab and the Audubon Society, attracts participants from around the world. Last year, nearly 150,000  checklists were submitted, recording nearly 18 million birds and 4,296 species. There were 263 species just in Los Angeles County, and the Malibu Lagoon and Point Dume State Park were among the top bird hot spots. More information is available here.

While cameras and binoculars are helpful, all that is required to participate in the bird count is the time to go out and look, and it's always worth taking the time to look. You never know what you might see. 

Happy birdwatching!

Suzanne Guldimann
7 February 2015

An osprey glides across the Malibu sky at sunset.