Southern California is an avifauna paradise. The desert, mountains and sea make for a rich geography, attracting many of the 500 estimated bird species found in the state as a whole. Located on the Pacific flyway, a major migratory route, this area shelters numerous wintering species. Additionally, the mild climate offers "birders" (the name some bird watchers prefer) productive field days throughout much of the year.
The skill of bird watching begins by being able to make proper identification. To start out, Kris Ohlenkamp, past president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society, says you'll need 7x35-power binoculars (any price range will do) and a field guide. He recommends Roger Tory Peterson's "A Field Guide to Western Birds," "Birds of North America" by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun and Herbert S. Zim or "Field Guide to the Birds of North America," a new book published by National Geographic with more "up-to-date territorial information and more unusual birds."
As you gain experience, Ohlenkamp says, you'll probably want to use two guides for comparing differences in the plates.
First look at the bird's general shape and size. For positive identification, check the shape of the bill and markings on the eyes and wings. Among smaller species, the color of the bill and legs makes a difference. The least sandpiper, for example, has green legs, while the western sandpiper's legs are black.
Observe the flight pattern, which falls roughly into three categories: undulating (goldfinches), gliding (swallows and hawks) or steady wing-beat (warblers, blackbirds, mockingbirds).
Experienced birders rely heavily on bird calls for identification, especially for songbirds. Among common species, "Jays have a screeching, irritating sound," while the mockingbird, known for its ability to mimic other bird calls, has a melodious full-scale song, often singing at night. Ohlenkamp can distinguish the calls of different hawks and can tell a kestrel from a prairie falcon.
Sighting an accidental or "wandering bird" lends excitement. "Accidentals are birds that don't breed in an area and are not in the normal migration path," says Ohlenkamp, who has spotted both the indigo bunting and pectoral sandpiper in the San Fernando Valley. These are both eastern birds, which, he surmises, "may have been blown off course, or something happened to their inner compasses."
Keeping a record of species sighted is necessary. Some people keep a life list that becomes a "personal challenge." Others may also keep another list for birds observed within one state or an annual list. Audubon Society chapters conduct a local bird count during Christmas week, asking members and those able to make positive identifications to contribute to the area's list, which is subsequently published.
People become involved in bird watching, Ohlenkamp believes, because of the diversity in this species, the beauty of coloration and flight, and the way some birds exhibit human-like habits. The cedar waxwing, for example, bonds for life. Conservation, education and the opportunity to socialize are other bonuses. After their first initiation, he says, "Most people become trapped, excited and surprised at the enjoyment of the pastime."
To become part of birding in your area, contact your local Audubon Society. Audubon House in Los Angeles is located in Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90046, (213) 876-0202. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Members receive subscriptions to Audubon magazine and Western Tanager. Other chapters are located throughout the Southland.
Beginners might try a self-guided walk in Trabuco Canyon in the O'Neill Regional Park, Trabuco Oaks. Sea and Sage Audubon Society (P.O. Box 1779, Santa Ana, Calif. 92702) schedules various field trips in the San Bernardino mountains, Orange and San Diego counties. Nancy Kenyon, field trip chairwoman for Sea and Sage, recommends starting early in the hot summer months. The park opens at 7:30 a.m. Information: (714) 786-3160.
During summer months, volunteers of the National Park Service conduct two-hour walks to observe shore and marine birds and their nesting habitats at the Malibu Lagoon State Beach. Call (818) 888-3770 for days and times.
To identify marine species, spend a day on either Anacapa, Santa Cruz or Santa Barbara island. (Santa Barbara is a birder's paradise.) Island Packer in Ventura, (805) 642-1393, schedules boat trips between May 1 and Labor Day. Adult fares begin at $28; half fare for children. A 25-cent bird checklist is available from the Channel Islands National Park Service, 1901 Spinnaker Drive, Ventura, Calif. 93001, (805) 644-8262.
And don't leave home without calling Audubon's "Bird Alert," (213) 874-1318, for a weekly updated ornithological report.