Since many of us have been forced to slow down during the pandemic, nature and the environment has been getting noticed. We have taken to the outdoors to refresh ourselves, get the kids in nature and burn off steam. And what we find when we go out there is, well, pretty entertaining. Birds are the most easily noticed thing outdoors because of how active and varied they are
Some think of bird fanatics like the Jack Black character in the movie “Big Year,” where people keep lists of birds and compete to get the most species. Frankly, most of us are nothing like that. When birders go out and talk with community members, you will find that most people just enjoy whatever birds frequent their backyards — and may even go as far as providing food for them. If you supply a constant source of food, water and close-by plant shelter, you’ll find that your bird population will skyrocket.
Birds come and go with the seasons (as they migrate), and one minute you’ll find a hummingbird feeder hotly guarded by a swarm of hummers, and then they all disappear to Mexico, leaving you flat until spring when they return to nest. But many hang around all year long, and you’ll find that if you keep a simple feeder stocked, you’ll be treated to blush-red house finches, gold finches, the gray oak titmouse with his tiny crest and small groups of mourning doves in their lovely soft plumage.
If you go to the local park or golfing, there’s a whole new community of birds that require those large open spaces, and they are equally spectacular: Western bluebirds, who are bright blue with rosy chests, black phoebes with their black crest and bright white underside, robins and noisy scrub jays (blue and white). You just have to look for motion in the trees, bushes or on the ground, and you will easily find them there. Watch the skies for hawks, crows or turkey buzzards. Binoculars are always helpful, so you might want to throw a pair in the backseat of your car just in case you spot something cool.
There is no required equipment for birdwatching, but binoculars are really nice, like 8X binoculars that give you enough magnification to see really well — but not too much (since you’ve got to hold them still) and keep up with active birds. If you want to see reviews of binoculars, including kid-sized models, check out birdwatching.com.
Binoculars are one of those things you can spend a little cash on, or thousands, depending on what your budget is. If you really get into it, you can fall in love with spotting scopes or waders for water birds, or fancy telephoto lenses for your camera. If your kids are really into their smartphone apps, check out a couple of sites that are maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; BIRDNET and Merlin are well worth exploring. BIRDNET allows you to record the bird calls you hear and makes an educated guess at what the bird is. Pretty cool. Merlin will help you go from seeing a black bird on the ground that’s smaller than a sparrow to giving you some guesses on what the real name might be. The eBIRD app allows you to look at reports of birds in any area of the country so you can go find where to see a particular bird.
If you want to birdwatch anywhere in the country, go to youtube.com/c/CornellLabBirdCams and you can live-watch all sorts of birds living their lives. There are plenty of electronic resources out there, so watch your kids quickly become experts and start advising you.
If you decide to go get an overdose of birds, it’s hard to beat the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve. When you walk onto the trailhead, birds burst out of the bushes as you pass. In the mornings, bunnies and squirrels abound (no dogs, please).
Once you get to the wildlife lake area, be prepared to be wowed by the variety and quantity of birds. During winter, flotillas of white pelicans solemnly promenade, small dark coots will entertain your kids while they dive below the surface (challenge the kids to predict where they will pop up) and lots of common mallard ducks squabble over their girlfriends. Marvel at a whole colony of cormorants nesting in the trees across the way, sunning themselves or dramatically dive-bombing into the lake to gobble down fish. Large Canadian geese hang out in the winter here and arrive in flocks to splash down in the lake, making a heck of a racket with their honking. This place is a no-brainer to bring the kids for an afternoon’s entertainment.
Other places to go birdwatching are Franklin Canyon, Hansen Dam, O’Melveny Park, along the Los Angeles River, Malibu Lagoon, Ballona Wetlands and, of course, at the beach. You can also look up best spots for birdwatching in your area on the internet. Audubon birding groups usually offer organized walks, although at the moment we are on hiatus per pandemic restrictions. The San Fernando Valley Audubon Society has been working with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains to provide schools virtual sessions on ecology and wildlife biology, so your kids may have already experienced our work in the classroom.
Birders are a social group, so if you see anyone looking at birds with binoculars, ask them what they are looking at. They are usually quite pleased to show you.
There are many Audubon chapters in the Los Angeles area. Check out the ones that are close to your neighborhood. San Fernando Valley Audubon’s website offers advice on equipment, parks to visit, backyard birding, feeders and guided walks. Some other chapters include Pasadena, Los Angeles, Santa Monica Bay, Sea & Sage (Irvine), Palos Verdes/South Bay, Pomona Valley, Conejo Valley, Antelope Valley, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Ventura, Channel Islands and San Diego.
Birding and Reading
There’s a huge array of guidebooks to help you identify that little brown bird on your back porch. For beginners, “Birds of Los Angeles” by Chris C. Fisher and Herbert Clarke is a good start because it doesn’t overwhelm you and sticks to common birds, with helpful drawings and tidbits about their lifestyles. “Sibley Birds West” by David Allen Sibley is easy to use and more expansive. Other areas may have local guides that would be useful outside the Los Angeles area.
Birdwatching magazines are plentiful, educational and have many opportunities to go on travel trips and learn about how and where to photograph fabulous birds. For example, “Birdwatcher’s Digest” and “Watching Backyard Birds” are both enjoyable, family-oriented magazines that will entertain, without going into scientific research.
But the most important thing is to just get out there and look at your winged neighbors living their dramatic lives, right under our noses — and know that we share this planet with marvelous other creatures.