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Birders’ behavior can be almost as interesting as bird behavior.

Definitely, birders have their own stamp of individuality when it comes to interacting with others of their kind.

Some generalities can be made, however.

The number one characteristic is rudeness.  I’m sorry, but it’s true.  I’ve known some really rude birders and I’m one of them!

The problem has its root in a birder’s desire to observe birds — above all else.  In their single-mindedness, they can absolutely ignore social conventions.

For example, a large group of birders is waiting around for a rarity to appear.  I’ve witnessed this so many times:  a birder walks up — curtly addresses somebody in the group with,

“Was it still only last seen at first light?”

A murmured answer to the affirmative by the person standing nearby brings out sighs of frustration in the new arrival.

But does he (or she) say hi to anybody else in the group?  No.  Does he introduce himself?  No.  Does he smile cheerfully at the prospect of a long and perhaps fruitless wait?  No.

This birder will set up his scope, start checking his iphone, and may never utter another word until the bird is spotted, usually by someone else, at which point he or she becomes almost voluble with “so what’s going on with the scaps?”, or “but look at the primary extension!”

Very bad form to show too much enthusiasm. OK. That I can live with.

But rudeness to other birders in the form of not introducing oneself or one’s companions, or in the form of only acknowledging the “top birders” in the assembled group — I’ve seen it all too often.

One of the most egregious examples of birding rudeness was when yours truly left a sit down dinner party at my host’s house to chase a bird with a man I’d never met before!

I’m serious.

I was in Montana with our friends who have a house near Missoula, and the guy who ran the Montana State birding hotline offered to take me to see a Boreal Owl.

Life bird!  Rude behavior alert!

I left my husband and my kind hosts in the lurch, drove an hour and a half down the Bitterroot Valley, and finally arrived at ~8000 foot Chief Joseph Pass.  Here, where an old nest box had been set up years ago, a female Boreal Owl was our goal.

Scaling a snow pack that was 8 feet high beside the highway, I and my companion, Terry Toppins, saw this gorgeous owl as she perched before her nightly foraging flight.

Was I rude? Of course!

Would I do it again?  Of course!

So you see that birders are very odd indeed:  not only can they be rude, but they show little remorse.

I guess those are just characteristics of the species……

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I know I risk this entry being called an advice column, which it is NOT.

Many birders don’t want to talk about family obligations and how difficult it is to maintain our passion/sport/hobby and still manage relationships!  Couples have foundered, children have been neglected, ageing parents haven’t been visited — all because we wanted to chase a bird.

How many rare county, state, or life birds have you missed because of family obligations to children, non-birding spouses and non-participating significant others?

Birding requires a lot of time, patience, and devotion to detail.

Let’s face it:  you can’t be a good birder without spending hours in the field.

The regular chunks of birding time — a morning here, a class there, a weekend field trip:  well, those can usually be managed.

Our families put up with SCHEDULED birding.

But now fall migration is approaching, and we birders know what the problem is going to be.

In fall, the birds don’t wait around.  They’re headed south, and typically these rare or out-of-range individuals do not linger more than an hour or a day — several days if we’re lucky.

These urgent rarities are the ones we birders agonize over, because most of us can’t just drop everything and run to see a rare bird!

The list of hard luck cases ranges from “My son is the star player on his soccer team and I have to drive him to the game!”  to “We’re supposed to be leaving in ten minutes to go to a reception honoring my grandmother (or boss, or father-in-law), and I can’t possibly get away.”

Those of us who’re lucky enough to have patient non-birding “others” in our life know our good fortune.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t cringe when we say,

“Ummm, honey, there’s a really, really rare bird in Santa Maria, do you mind if I leave immediately and am gone the rest of the day????  And could you please meet the plumber and tell him where the new hot water heater has to go???  Oh, and I don’t have time to go to the store, so could you pick up dinner, too????”

So this is a problem to which there are few solutions.

In my experience you can:

1) Put on a happy face, but kind of sulk the rest of the day,

2) Hope and pray the bird will stay one more day so you can go first thing tomorrow,

3) Bemoan your circumstances to sympathetic birding friends who can’t get away either and are just as frustrated.

Actually, the only solution is to ask for eternal tolerance, good cheer, and cooperation from our loved ones, right?

And now, so sorry I have to go.

I just heard about a __(fill in the blank)__ , AND I HAVE TO SEE IT BEFORE SUNDOWN because it’ll surely be gone by tomorrow!!!




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Tales from a Sewage Treatment Plant –

Looking back through my journal, I find certain days stand out.  Since shore bird season is upon us, and birding at the Goleta Sewage Treatment Plant is one of the best places to go, let’s step back in time to a day almost exactly 15 years ago.

AUGUST 10, 1999:

I’ll never forget this day!  After weeks of no birding and meetings and caring for my dear Dad, I was sitting home, when the phone rang.  It was Fred Emerson telling of a nice morning he’d spent at the sewage plant in Goleta.  He mentioned that a Red Knot was there, as well as a possible Solitary Sandpiper.

I got in the car — supposed to be doing errands.  Forget it.  I have to get OUT!  The car just drove itself, and it was headed to the Goleta sewage plant.

A few minutes later, I swung by my friend, David Kisner’s house, to see if he’d like to accompany me.  He would.

It was late afternoon.  The cool sea breeze was blowing the sludgy smells around as we arrived at the settling ponds.  We signed in at the office, then headed out with scope and binocs.

In those days you could walk all the way around the sewage ponds, so we just took our time — stopping to gaze at the myriad shorebirds walking on the bubbling, gooey surface of the water.

Immediately I realized how rusty I’d become.  It had been so long since I’d looked at shorebirds!  I was groping around trying to sort out the Westerns from the Least Sandpipers, recognize the adults from the juveniles.  We took it slow, examining pretty nearly every peep we could find.

As we approached the back pond, David spotted “the Knot” standing on a low berm.  Through the scope I saw this amazing RED bird — dark reddish-brown and what looked like a drooping, DOWN-curved bill.  Instantly, the “Knot” flew.

But we kept going, knowing we’d refind it.  Took our time, talked to a couple of sewage plant employees…went over to the other side of the ponds; ended up where we started with the light at our backs and every shorebird in perfect sunshine.

Suddenly, my mind did a double-take:

“David, that bird had a decurved, drooping bill!” I say.

Knots have straight bills.  What the heck?

I thumb threw the book.

Suddenly “the Knot” is before us on the mudflats. Perfect view.

David starts reading off the dimensions of Knots vs. phalaropes, etc.

Our “Knot”, he notices, has BLACK legs.

“Oh, but that’s just the mud,” says me.

Since Knots are supposedly possessed of greenish-gray-yellowish legs, this is a problem.

“He’s all muddy!”  Lentz again.

“Joan, look at the bill.  That’s not a straight bill.  It DROOPS!”

“Yes, but if it’s not a Knot what can it be?? ”

“Joan, it’s a Curlew Sandpiper!” and David starts laughing in that definite way he has.  Like, here’s a math problem and I just solved it — that kind of way.

“WHAT?  Impossible!” says me, the record-keeper, mentally recalling the juvenile I’d seen in Santa Maria in 1984. It looked nothing like this bird.  I’d never heard of a summer record of Curlew Sandpiper, much less an adult.  For, of course, it had to be an adult bird that had retained that bright red plumage and was on its southward migration.

Still.  I couldn’t believe it.  REFUSED to believe it.  David’s crazy.  No question.

My heart is pounding with excitement.  I begin calling people.  Karen Bridgers, who’s just walked in the door from an exhausting day in L.A., answers the phone.

We beg her to come look at the bird since we can’t raise anybody else!

She agrees.

She arrives at the sewage plant, runs over to where David and I have set up the scope, and looks through it.

“Joanie, it’s got a down-curved bill!” she cries triumphantly.

We all grin at each other.

By this time we’ve got several books open and we take turns reading the descriptive passages.

“The underwings and axillaries are almost pure white” – check.

“The undertail coverts are white with dots” – check that and yes.

An elegant shorebird, a little smaller than the surrounding phalaropes, almost entirely rich, brick red on sides of head, neck and underparts.  A real show-stopper!

Guy Tingos, Dave Compton, and the Hardies appear.  Joan Hardie creeps over onto the pebbles and stones of the nearby area on her hands and knees, her belly scraping the ground in order to get 21 photos of the Curlew Sandpiper.

Great consternation ensues as we have to leave and we still don’t know the policy of the sewage treatment plant towards birders.

It turns out they’re incredibly birder-friendly (they still are).

For the next day, the bird stays.  Many local birders get to see it. But by August 12, the sandpiper has disappeared.

But the weird thing is that Brad Hines, at the Santa Ynez River mouth up north, called to say he’s just seen what he thinks is the exact same bird.  Huh?  Is this bird going BACK to Alaska? (We never did find out.  It left up there by Aug. 16 not to be seen again.)

So that’s how a rare shorebird that was found by Fred Emerson, identified by David Kisner, confirmed by Karen Bridgers, and photographed by Joan Hardie still somehow has my name connected with it.

And it remains only the second record of Curlew Sandpiper in Santa Barbara County.

Let’s go find another one!


Curlew Sandpiper, August 10, 1999.  Photo by Joan Hardie

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I have been following several news reports about signs that El Niño conditions may be building in waters off South America.

As you may recall from the chapter on weather in my recent book, ENSO events (El Niño/Southern Oscillation as they are properly called) originate in the tropical eastern Pacific off Peru.  Eventually, they may affect our weather in the Northern Hemisphere.

The normally cold, plankton-rich Humboldt current is the southern counterpart to our cold California current.  These waters produce important bait fish for foraging seabirds.

Off our coast, these schooling fish are Northern Anchovies or Pacific Sardines.

Off the Peruvian coast, the feeder fish are Peruvian Anchoveta (a type of anchovy) and the South American Pilchard ( a species of sardine).

When the sea surface temperatures warm up in the Humboldt current, because of the complicated wind and water conditions associated with ENSO, these feeder fish will disappear seeking colder waters.

If an El Niño is on the way, seabird populations may be the first to suffer.

Alvaro Jaramillo, a top California birder and tour guide (, has posted news to CALBIRDS – a listserve to which I belong — of a massive die off of several species of seabirds off the central South American coast from the Galapagos to northern Chile.  Guanay Cormorant and Peruvian Booby appear to be the main victims, and they’re dying of starvation.  Presumably, the sardines and anchovies have departed to colder waters. Read more »

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June 25, 2014:

Yesterday evening was classic summer in Montana.  It got warm and sticky.  The gray clouds over the mountains built.

Small sounds of thunder.  Then the thunder gets closer.  Soon, it is upon us.  A loud crack.  Rain comes pouring down.

After the rain, I went outside and just sat on a bench by the cabin.  I wanted to see what would turn up.


Blackfoot River on a summer afternoon

Along the Blackfoot, you find three habitats merging:  the river itself, the narrow band of riparian vegetation along the riverbank, and the forested woodland of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas-Fir.


I noticed a male and female Yellow-rumped Warbler foraging on the lowest branch of a fir situated right over the driveway.  What were they up to?  They fluttered and hovered, gleaned and investigated, but all in a very small area.

It took me awhile to realize they were searching for insects. Very close by, but well-hidden on top of a horizontal branch, was a mound of grasses and rootlets — their nest!  And in it , three enormous youngsters with yellow gapes and pink mouths.

Finally, I went inside and got the spotting scope and set it up focusing on the nest.  It was astonishing how hard the parent birds worked to feed the hungry nestlings.  Sometimes the food items were so small you couldn’t tell there was anything in their bills, but other times a fly or worm could be seen.  It all went down the hatch of the begging baby birds.  And this occurred most of the day.

I wish I were a photographer.  My attempts at digiscoping produced horrible results. Read more »

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June 20, 2014 – Arrived here in Missoula to marvelous fresh air.   It’s been raining for a week and now everything sparkles and the Douglas-Firs shine green and the meadows are full of wildflowers.  Nothing can compare with late June in the northern forest.


Blackfoot River

The Blackfoot River runs high and swift in this part of the canyon.  We watch the water’s movement, roiling around rocks and logs, lolling in deep pools; always changing with the weather.  What color is it?  Gray, green, pale white, or silver?


Birding beside the Blackfoot River

This afternoon is so extraordinarily mild and lovely. The sun filters through the firs.  The air is like ambrosia — dry and fine.  The ground beneath, moistened from last night’s rain, sprouts wildflowers in the fields.

The bird song fills me with happiness.  I couldn’t recognize some of the calls and songs at first, but most of them were familiar enough that I could walk down the road out in front of the house and call out the species to myself.

The feeders on the deck attract Pine Siskins and Cassin’s Finches.

But the big news is the abundance of Evening Grosbeaks!  It takes your breath away to see their bright yellow and black and white.  They wield over-sized bills for cracking pine seeds, or sunflower seeds at the feeders.


Calliope Hummingbird. Photo by Bob Goodell

photo 3

Evening Grosbeak. Photo by Paul Loehnen

photo 1

Cassin’s Finch. Photo by Paul Loehnen


Watching at the bird feeders is so much fun:  the Evening Grosbeaks are a bowl of yellow and black, a collection of jewels.  Big, chunky jewels.  With a lot of arguing and squabbling among them.

I love the burgeoning feeling of all of these birds that’ve just arrived from the south for the nesting season.  This is the brief moment in time when it all happens and then ?  They’re gone, gone, gone.  And you think it’s OK if you wait til July or August to visit here but it’s not OK.  You’ll miss the dawn chorus of American Robins, Western Tanagers, and Black-headed Grosbeaks.  You’ll miss the male Calliope Hummingbird that perched on a wire over the road this afternoon. And the Cordilleran Flycatcher that sings it’s quick “zeeeeep?”  Just slightly different enough from our Pacific-slope Flycatchers back home to make me look at the range map & confirm that indeed this is Cordilleran country. Read more »

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One of my favorite spring birding spots is the stone bridge over Rincon Creek.  The creek runs along the Santa Barbara/Ventura County line; it’s a thick riparian corridor there, and the best place for observation is from the stone bridge along Bates Road.

Tall sycamores lean right over the bridge.  Willows grow in a dense thicket along the creek.  The understory is thick with blackberry tangles and honeysuckle vines.

Riparian habitat over Rincon Creek

Bates Road as it crosses Rincon Creek


Although this location is good for watching birds in spring migration, it’s best in late spring or early summer as a place to count breeding birds.  Nests are often easy to see.

This year, after I had parked and grabbed my binoculars from the car, I wandered over to the bridge.  Looking down, I was stunned to see NO water in Rincon Creek.  I’ve been birding this location for years (since the 1990s) and this is the first time that Rincon Creek has stopped running in June.

Read more »

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Yesterday I drove to Morro Bay.  It was typical spring weather, with a strong northwest wind blowing cloud shadows over the morros.  These hills, which form a series of rocky outcrops beginning with Morro Rock and ending near San Luis Obispo, are really ancient “plugged” volcanoes that used to be much higher.  They formed a stunning backdrop to the Los Osos Valley as I made my way towards the town of Morro Bay.

That evening, I gave a presentation to Morro Coast Audubon Society at the beautiful new auditorium near the Botanic Garden.  I came away feeling that the whole Morro Bay Area has a high interest in natural history; they were an enthusiastic audience and I even sold some books.

But the fun began this morning, when I awoke to see the sun shining on Morro Rock.


Morro Rock

Morro Rock


This enormous crag is always attractive to nesting seabirds.  As I gaze up at the ledges, I count a few Pelagic Cormorants,  lots and lots of Brandt’s Cormorants — they seem to prefer the adjoining rock out to the northwest, however — and numerous Western Gulls.  The shrill cries of the gulls dominate.  The rock is a hive of birds busily carrying nesting material and defending territories.

My goal, of course, is to see the legendary Peregrine Falcons that have nested here for decades.

I walk around the south side of the rock.  Behind me in the channel leading into the harbor, 5 or 6 Southern Sea Otters, one with a fluffy juvenile floating beside it, frolic in the morning sun.  What a thrill.


Southern Sea Otters

Read more »

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Today I knew it was going to be a great Mother’s Day, when I heard a Yellow-breasted Chat singing to me from the back hedge in my garden!  And I could see there were birds hopping in and out of the pond, but I got busy with a lot of stuff during the day, so it wasn’t until 5 pm that I sat down and watched from the deck.

And that’s when it happened!

These “jewels” of masses of Wilson’s and Yellow Warblers, a MacGillivray’s Warbler, Orange-crowned Warblers (some), Western Tanagers, Swainson’s Thrushes, you name it, a mini fall-out of western migrants visited my pond during this one hour. Read more »

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Today I went hiking with my sister, Ellen.  We visited a favorite trail, the Aliso Loop, located at Sage Hill Campground reached by Paradise Road north of Santa Barbara.

We got on the trail early, for it was to be a hot day.

Aliso Canyon burned in the White Fire of 2013. Today was a great lesson in what comes back first after a chaparral fire–the plants that are “fire followers”.

The canyon was in shadow when we began.  As we gained elevation and hit the shaley slopes, the sun warmed us.  The pretty bright yellow Tufted Poppies (Eschscholzia caespitosa) clung to the steep hillsides.

Tufted Poppies

Tufted Poppies

I sought the true fire followers, those plants that require the scarification of their seeds by heat or fire in order to thrive.  They’re profuse right after a burn.  By the third or fourth year after a fire, the fire followers tend to drop off, and other plants take their place.

The Gambel’s Phacelia (Phacelia viscida var. albiflora) is a small-flowered white phacelia that’s rather unique to our region. Local botanist Larry Ballard says he’s never observed this form anywhere else.  Just imagine William Gambel collecting the type specimen here in Santa Barbara in 1842.

Gambel's Phacelia, a white variety found in our region

Gambel’s Phacelia, a white variety found in our region

Delicate Mariposa Lilies (Calochortus catalinae) grew in loose colonies or spread their white, tulip-shaped blooms among other flowers.

Above all, I looked for Whispering Bells (Emmenanthe penduliflora).  The pale yellow bell-shaped flowers will eventually die and their dried husks supposedly make a papery tinkling sound when the wind blows. In what has got to be one of the most unique experiments of all time, botanists discovered in 1977 that the seeds of Whispering Bells will only germinate if exposed to chemicals found in smoke or burnt wood.

Whispering Bells (foreground) and Phacelia distans

Whispering Bells (foreground) and Phacelia distans

No wonder they are among the first of the fire followers to sprout after a burn. Read more »