Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Post #85 - The Human Side of Urban Birding

Those who read regularly know that I have often lamented my overly-urban existence here in Metro Los Angeles. I have, however, had a couple of birding experiences in my current surrounds that have etched themselves forever into my memory. Today I am going to share 3 of these stories with you.

Story #1
In August, an American Golden-plover appeared in the LA River in downtown Los Angeles. For those unfamiliar with it, the LA River is not so much a proper river as it is a large concrete drainage ditch. It's heavily littered and generally polluted, but, as the only water for miles, the shallow flow does attract a fair number of ducks, shorebirds, and gulls. The river also attracts countless homeless, most of whom reside under the various overpasses that span it. Interactions with the homeless are unavoidable when birding the LA River, but I've never personally had any problems with any of them. On the contrary, they've helped me to widen my perspective.

LA River diagram. From Hollywood to Long
Beach is about 25 miles, for reference.

Some stretches look like this....

....while others look like this.

Back to the golden-plover. I had just observed it for my still embryonic California State list when a man came walking down the opposite, concrete river bank. He was yelling and gesticulating wildly. As he passed me on that far bank, he removed his shirt and pants, and proceeded to run into the water at ditch's center. He emerged with a Western Gull carcass that he held above his head as he sprinted further down the shallow channel. Whether he had mental issues, substance abuse issues (his behavior was very indicative of PCP, particularly the clothing removal), or a combination of both I couldn't say for sure. Either way, my birding exploits suddenly seemed of secondary consequence to his circumstances. I wondered how far the man had fallen to reach that point. It was an equally sad and eye-opening meditation, and the golden-plover suddenly seemed of greatly diminished importance. Perspective, like rare birds, often surfaces at the least expected times.

Story #2
After Sonia's mom passed away (see last post), the hospice folks said they couldn't reuse or recycle the mattress they provided for her. I hate letting anything with potential utility go to waste, so I took the mattress with a plan to clean it and take it to homeless camp in South Central. I put the folding, semi-portable mattress in the back of the car seat and forgot about it.

Fast forward to two weekends ago. I decided to spend a morning looking for a locally rare Yellow-throated Warbler at Earvin "Magic" Johnson Park in Compton (Yep, Compton, its been cleaned up quite a bit from the NWA dayz). I arrived at 7am and spent the better part of the next 3.5 hours searching for the wayward warbler. There were at least a dozen birders present, but we were collectively unable to relocate the bird. Returning to my car, I saw the mattress in the back seat and realized I was already halfway to the homeless camp. I hopped back on the 105 Freeway, veered north onto the 110, and rolled into the camp 5 minutes later. The guys were admittedly a bit skeptical as I hauled the mattress out of the back seat, but a quick explanation dispelled any suspicions they had about me or the mattress. One dude laid claim to it, and they all thanked me for bringing what was otherwise trash to them.

At the precise moment I was passing the park on my way home, I received a phone call informing me that the warbler had resurfaced. I swung in and collected the bird after a bit of additional searching. Though not a believer in anything divine, spiritual, or the like, I did take a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that my effort to help someone else indirectly led me back to the warbler. It was karma at its finest.

Yellow-throated Warbler - record shot only

Story #3
Last weekend I made a quick stop at my local patch, a small park that backs up to the San Gabriel River. As far from a proper river as the LA River, the scrubby foliage that owns the ditch is also popular with the homeless. However, on that most recent visit, many of the regulars were missing, presumably ousted by the local authorities as is periodically customary. As I viewed this apparent former dwelling, birding again seemed insignificant in the grander scheme of things. To me the park and adjacent river is a convenient but generally crappy place to find birds; To others, it is - or, at least, was - home.

San Gabriel River about a mile
from my apartment in Norwalk

Vacated dwelling on the river bank

All of these stories remind me that as much as I love my various birding lists and photographic adventures, at the end of the day it's just birding. Our lives are going to go on regardless of what birds we do or don't find/photograph. LA birding certainly leaves much to be desired from an aesthetic standpoint, but it's also served as a constant reminder of just how insignificant are most of my so-called problems. I'm am going to try to remember this during the holiday season. I hope you will too.

For the record, my best LA River bird to date? I did not find this, I just poached it in mid-November. It stayed for two weeks.

Sharp-tailed Sandpiper - record shot only
Not even a lifer! Saw one in NYC a few years back.


  1. Hi Dorian, I followed your Biking for Birds year via your blog and was addicted. It was my nightly fix. Now I am following the Speckled Hatchback and enjoying it. I don't really want to leave this comment publicly but I don't know another way to communicate it. I hope no one except you reads it and I think you can also delete it. I also keep a blog, as a hobby, to put my photos in context and to practice my writing. I'm always tweaking. In this blog I think you have a small but significant word use error. You write "When Sonia's mom past ..." That should be "passed", but it would be even better if it was "passed away" and even better yet if it was "died." Agh, I can't even believe I am writing this. The up side is that at least you know someone is reading what you write. I have a personal belief that not many birders really reads blogs but only look at the photos. For my blog the writing is mostly for me and for my writing improvement. But if others read it and enjoy that's great too. I just don't think it's typical of blog readers. Finally, I'll add that a feature of your blog that I really like is that your photos are not all stunning bird photos and that you also write about the places and experiences that birding and bird photography take you - as in this entry. This is an important and overlooked feature of birding. Agh, again I am embarrassed - but fortunately blogging is not texting or tweeting. Thank you for allowing the grammar police to comment.

    1. Fixed - whew! Thanks for pointing that out. I usually get posts out late at night and sometimes things sneak through that shouldn't. No worries on the public critique. I'm glad you enjoy the blog. I'm trying to humanize it as much as possible. Just reading lists of birds isn't terribly interesting.

  2. Replies
    1. Glad to see all the bird content hasn't scared you away!

  3. Thanks for your perspective. We must appreciate what good fortune we have each and every day.

    1. Yep! Believe it - though more camera gear is always desired!