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Birding in L.A.: 7 Reasons to Do It, and How to Get Started

An acorn woodpecker. I love these guys. If you've ever seen a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, you'll know why.
An acorn woodpecker. I love these guys. If you've ever seen a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, you'll know why.

Bird-watching. A word that is synonymous with you don't really know because you've already lost interest just thinking about it for one second. Lucky for you this post isn't about bird-watching; it's about birding. I said MOTHERFUCKIN' BIRDING, YOU GUYS!

Sorry. I got a little overzealous trying to dispel your misconceptions about the activity of looking at birds through binoculars and keeping nerdy little lists of where and when you saw those birds. You used to hear it called "bird-watching." Now it's "birding," and the people who do it call themselves "birders" because, well, I think they're aware they have a little public relations issue. See, I'm guessing when you think about "bird-watching," you probably picture these folks:

Don't birder hate. Appreciate.
Don't birder hate. Appreciate.

And that's cool. Because this is kind of what a lot of birders look like. Take Judy Bass, veteran birder and volunteer naturalist at Eaton Canyon Nature Center in Pasadena. "I think a lot of people, just in semantics, think of bird-watching as sort of the stereotypical little old lady in her tweed outfit and her pith helmet," she says. When she first started birding, she recalls, all the middle-aged people with binoculars cracked her up. "And of course I became one of them and now I don't see the humor," she says, chuckling despite herself.

Bass is the retired microbiologist who led me on my first bird walk when I was a student in the docent naturalist class at the nature center. I pretty much want to be like her when I grow up.

So, clearly, there are the sort of "typical" birders like Bass and many of her Eaton Canyon docent cohorts. But then you have this guy:

Christopher Taylor, Mr. April 2012 in Bird Watcher's Digest
Christopher Taylor, Mr. April 2012 in Bird Watcher's Digest
Tawny Flechtner

Christopher Taylor has been birding since he was a little kid, and he'd share the details of his "life list" of types of birds he's seen with you, but he doesn't want to make you feel inadequate.

"I broke 700 when I was a teenager," says the Venice-based Taylor, who in his non-birding, non-wildlife-photographing life is a veep of technology at an Internet marketing company. "What I really care about now is my photo list, and by ABA [American Birding Association] standards I'm kind of close to 600, so I've almost caught up to what I saw when I was a kid." He's rattling off genus and species names for the assorted avifauna in attendance on a Saturday morning at the Ballona Creek wetlands reserve in Playa del Rey, and I'm working on not feeling self-conscious on more levels than usual.

"A lot of times people don't realize what's in their own backyards," he says. "My neighbors, for example. Born and raised in Venice and they've never seen an oriole. It's amazing to me that people can live their whole lives and not see the birds around them."

He's right, man. Here are seven good reasons to start birding now:

Meet your neighbors. Clockwise from top left: red-throated loon, wandering tattler, tree swallow and green heron. All photographed at Ballona Creek by Christopher Taylor.
Meet your neighbors. Clockwise from top left: red-throated loon, wandering tattler, tree swallow and green heron. All photographed at Ballona Creek by Christopher Taylor.
Christopher Taylor

7. It's still spring! Hurry! Go! Don't even finish reading this!

So first of all: migration. I'm going to go ahead and quote the experts on this:

"Spring migration peaks in [Los Angeles] around the last 10 days of April and first 10 days of May. Of course, for many species the peak is earlier -- even as early as January/February for species such as sage thrasher and migratory Allen's hummingbirds. And other species are later."

The expert here is Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, co-author of the compact and handy field guide Birds of the Los Angeles Region and possibly the most badass local birding expert in the area.

Kimball Garrett and friend. When it comes to birds of Los Angeles, you do not want to mess with this man.
Kimball Garrett and friend. When it comes to birds of Los Angeles, you do not want to mess with this man.
Tawny Flechtner

"One of the neat things about birds is, being very mobile, and many species moving hundreds of thousands of miles a year, you can kind of stay put and different birds will come to you over the course of the year," he explains. "Right now we're at the peak of migration with warblers and tanagers and flycatchers and swallows and lots of shore birds and things flying through." [Note: This was accurate as of May 7. Right now it's still a good time for birding, but not right at the peak.]

Los Angeles happens to lie along the Pacific flyway, a major north-south route of travel for migratory birds, which stretches from Alaska to Patagonia. During migration seasons, Angelenos are treated to this phenomenal overlap of year-round native birds, birds that winter here, birds that summer here, birds that breed here and, occasionally, the exotic vagrant whose navigation system has gone wacky.

Not to mention that spring is the time of year for all sorts of natural world hanky-panky. Can you say, BREEDING PLUMAGE?! If there's a time of year various birds become most easy to identify because they're at their most tail-gettingly flamboyant, it's springtime, baby. Birding will never be easier than it is right now.

Male mallard in breeding plumage. Nature's drag queen.
Male mallard in breeding plumage. Nature's drag queen.

6. You live in America's Birdiest County.

Los Angeles County: home to Hollywood, the Sunset Strip and some of the awesomest birding hotspots in the country.

"It's partly, of course, because there are so many people here that if a bird shows up, somebody's going to find it," explains Garrett. "But it's mostly because of the diversity of habitat." We're talking mountains, marshes, coastline, chaparral, desert, oak woodland and more, people! That's a lot of different kinds of food and shelter that are irresistible to a lot of different kinds of birds.

For several years, the American Birding Association held the "America's Birdiest County" competition, whereby birders working in county-level teams across the United States were encouraged to hit the field and identify as many species as they could on a weekend during the height of spring migration. Los Angeles County won every year from 2006 through 2011, at which point, says Garrett, "I think everyone else just gave up."

So there was no formal competition this year. That didn't stop members of the Yahoo group LACo Birds from racking up a whopping 262 species sighted during the weekend of April 27-29, when the group held its own unofficial count. The Angeleno birders didn't break their 2011 record of 277, but as Garrett puts it, "In a purer sense it's not a competition but a celebration of bird diversity."

All told, L.A. County has been known to provide habitat to 507 out of 914 total naturally occurring species in North America. Pretty solid showing, L.A. Pretty solid indeed.

I love you, binoculars!
I love you, binoculars!
Tawny Flechtner

5. It's (almost) free to start.

After my first bird walk, I knew I'd found a new passion/geek fixation, so I went online and ordered a pretty good beginner's pair of binoculars for about 300 bucks. Let me emphasize that you don't have to spend that much. For half that, you should be able to get a pair that's not going to frustrate you, according to most of the birders I've talked to.

And let me further emphasize that if you're not sure you'll even like birding but are willing to give it a try, all you need to do is locate a friend/sucker acquaintance who owns a decent pair of binos (as the birders call them). Or you don't even have to go that far -- just put up a bird feeder and start paying attention.

Other upfront costs include: a good field guide or two. Most highly recommended: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America and The Sibley Guide to Birds. Also, I personally recommend the previously mentioned Birds of the Los Angeles Region for a good local starter.

Then of course, there's the price of the gas you'll need to drive to some good birding spots if you're not fortunate enough to live within walking distance. Excellent areas for beginners (and nonbeginners) include Eaton Canyon, Ballona Wetlands, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve (not in L.A. County, but definitely drive-able), Malibu Lagoon, Sepulveda Basin, Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, Hahamongna Watershed Park. Of course, you could always take the footmobile over to your nearest local park.

Finally, it's absolutely free to join and attend meetings for your local Audubon chapter, and mostly free to go on Audubon field trips and bird walks. From my experience, this is the best way to learn -- from veteran birders who are seasoned at fielding a lot of goofy beginners' questions.

4. It's good for your brain.

At a recent meeting of the Los Angeles Audubon, central California-based biologist and "professional birder" Alvaro Jaramillo gave a presentation on how to tone up your field-identification muscle -- or "memory," as it's popularly called. He shared the results of some recent studies he's come across into the "auto-recall" capacity of the human brain, and what it might imply for the birder.

"One of the things [the studies] found was that you recognize faces by using this internal software where you automatically shortcut to knowing who somebody is without actually thinking through all the criteria. You're not saying, 'Oh, they've got blue eyes,' etc., you just automatically do it," he explains. "And that's what happens after long-term observation of birds. People get so comfortable identifying them that the brain begins to treat them almost the way we treat people's faces. There's evidence that we sort of store away the information in our brains in a series of nerve cells that have a kind of auto-recall. And people who've birded a long time end up being really good at differentiation in general."

Really, guys, you'd be amazed at how soon after taking up birding you'll go from thinking, "Look at the neat birdy," to "That's a whimbrel. Member of the curlew family. See its long, curved beak?" (Actual quote from a barely trying Christopher Taylor.)

You know what they say about the size of a bird's beak.
You know what they say about the size of a bird's beak.

3. Technology is making it easier than ever.

"There used to be a BirdBox in the '80s," Christopher Taylor reminisces. "I remember my dad would have to call that every two hours to see what someone reported." The BirdBox is essentially a hotline system birders once relied on for updates on bird sightings, especially of unusual species.

Of course, Taylor's dad introduced him to birding before the advent of eBird or iBird, or even Yahoo groups. "So, yeah, it took a little more work back then. Now, we get texted immediately." Forget having to get on the phone and call in. Instead, "field sparrow at Kenneth Hahn" just shows up in your phone's message center and you're on your way.

Taylor gets updates through the LACo Birds Yahoo listserv, and is diligent about entering his bird sightings into the eBird database.

Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, eBird is an online checklist program birders use to get real-time information about where and when birds are. Every birder I talked to could do naught but sing its praises.

Through eBird, "You can get up-to-date, current maps of where everything is being seen all over the country," explains Kimball Garrett. "It's really fine-scale, seasonal and geographic information about what birds are doing."

Besides eBird, there are a number of birding apps available for Android, iPad and iPhone. I bought iBird Pro explorer (on sale for $15.99!) and I dig its search functions and library of bird calls and songs courtesy of the Cornell ornithology lab.

It's the age of information, folks. The birds are gonna have to work a little harder to keep us guessing.

2. If you start now, by the time you're an old lady in tweed and a pith helmet, you'll have a "life list" you can use to emasculate other birders.

For you competitive types: Wanna do something arguably insane that will earn you the recognition of the birding community at large? Win a "big year." A big year is an informal competition whereby birders compete to see who can rack up the most species sightings within a given area over the course of the year.

"Big year is a big deal because it takes so much time and effort," says Alvaro Jaramillo. "You basically have to plan your whole year around the competition to win. It's not exactly the Olympics -- but for birders it is."

OK, so you're not interested in slowly spiraling into obsessive-compulsive madness over the course of a year. You can do a "big day" or even a "big month." Or, you can just focus on trying to top Christopher Taylor's 700-plus-species-long life list. A caveat: This is when you need to globetrot, so birding may start to get a bit expensive, unless you can figure out some way to hitchhike to Thailand.

Male Western tanager in breeding plumage. I challenge you to remain blasé.
Male Western tanager in breeding plumage. I challenge you to remain blasé.

1. It'll help you connect to the nature around you -- and I know you like nature because you have Planet Earth on Blu-ray.

Based on the number of people I've talked to about Planet Earth, Life, Blue Planet and all the other phenomenal nature porn the BBC has produced over the past decade or so, you can't tell me that most of you aren't at least marginally interested in wildlife.

Or maybe I'm just projecting because I don't want to be the only person who wept with wonder the first time she saw a tree full of Western tanagers in vibrant yellow and red breeding plumage. True story.

I don't think I'm alone here, though.

"I think there's something absolutely human about wanting to see creatures and interact with them somehow," says Jaramillo. "You can be into whales, or big cats. But birds are everywhere, you can see them any day, any place. So [birding is] a way to sort of meet that primal need that people have to be close to nature. And some people don't know they have this need until they've been there and then they're like, 'Oh my God, why haven't I done this before?'

"It's sort of like a gateway drug to nature," he reflects.

In my experience, this is not an exaggeration.

Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter. Tawny Flechtner blogs at Identity Cleft.

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