Strange, two-footed animals were stalking wild birds at Chatsworth Reservoir on Saturday morning.
Dressed in plaid shirts and hiking boots, they studied guidebooks and peered through binoculars, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive snow goose or the common Anna's hummingbird.
As members of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of the National Audubon Society, their mission Saturday was to count as many tail feathers as they could between 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
By the tour's end, the tally was 72 species and 3,753 individual birds, according to organizer Arthur Langton, vice president of the Audubon Society's local chapter. In addition, the birders spotted a mule deer, a rabbit and the cleanly picked skulls of a cat and a squirrel.
Each year around Christmas, Audubon Society members gather in forests, lakes and wildlife refuges throughout the country to count and identify as many of North America's 650 bird species as possible. In the San Fernando Valley, bird counts took place at seven locations Saturday, including the Sepulveda Dam, the Encino Reservoir and Hansen Dam.
At Chatsworth Reservoir, which has long been dry and is normally closed to the public, the fledgling ornithologists included a visiting couple from Connecticut, a biology professor from Oklahoma and a Canoga Park mother with her two grown daughters.
Led by Langton, a longtime bird watcher, the group cruised along the reservoir's roads in a five-car caravan, hanging out of windows to scan the horizon with binoculars.
At likely bird hangouts, they poured out of their cars, scrambled up rocks and hiked through wild sage to identify their prey.
In a gnarled oak tree filled with common doves, several of the crew spotted a more exotic species.
"There he is, way over to the left side of the tree, by the doves," Langton said.
"Is that a hairy woodpecker?" another birder asked.
"I don't know, I think his bill's too short," Langton answered. "The only other thing it could be is a downy (woodpecker)."
"I thought it was a nuttal (woodpecker)," said Margaret Pinhey of Canoga Park, lowering her binoculars.
Langton looked again. "With all that white, it's a nuttal," he affirmed. "Let's go with the nuttal."
"It didn't feel comfortable to me as a downy," another birder confessed.
Because some species look alike except for minute variations in color, beak size and plumage pattern, birders often identify by consensus, said biology teacher Jeff Burkhart.
Species of gulls, for instance, are especially difficult to identify because they turn different colors and sport new plumage each year, said Laura Baca, secretary of the local Audubon chapter. Baca, who has been birding for three years, said she keeps a list of birds she has sighted.
All birders aspire to see "that rare bird," according to Baca. For visitors from out-of-state, it may be a typical California bird. For local residents, it may be a rare golden eagle.
Langton's fancy ran more to road runners Saturday. Although they aren't rare, road runners are "fun to see," Langton mused.
"They're sort of a remnant of old California," he said.