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A BIRDER'S PARADISE : Crowds Are Flocking to Keep a Watch on Our Fine, Feathered Southland Friends

February 27, 1988|DEXTER KELLY

The western end of the Antelope Valley is the last place you'd expect to find a crowd. Especially on a cold winter morning, when a sharp icy wind is funneled down between two converging mountain ranges and tears up the surface of Quail Lake. Especially at dawn on a Sunday morning, when only cows should be outside.

So the driver of the pickup truck was shocked as he rounded the curve of California 138 along the south shore of the lake. A mob of people were standing very still on or next to the road, peering through binoculars, cameras and telescopes on tripods. Some of them moved sullenly off the pavement when the driver honked his horn, but they didn't take their eyes off the lake.

"Hey, what are you people looking at?" the driver shouted.

"Birds."

"Birds?"

"Well, one bird especially. A Tufted Duck."

"A what?"

There were plenty of ducks rafting on the lake, but one was special--a wanderer from Eurasia that looked like the common scaups and ring-necked ducks except for its "tuft," a hank of feathers hanging down from its head like a greasy cowlick. It had been spotted by members of the Los Angeles Audubon Society on one of their frequent field trips to the Antelope Valley. The tufted duck was too far out on the lake to be identified through binoculars, so the few people who brought scopes were sharing them with more lightly armed birders. Trip leader Jean Brandt was moving up and down the line, making sure that everyone got a good scope's-eye view of the bird.

A few others who had seen tufted ducks before were gazing at the sky. Suddenly one of them shouted "Golden eagle overhead!" Brandt took up the cry, making sure everyone along the long line of birders heard the news. "Golden eagle, 12 o'clock, right overhead. . . . Now it's moving out over the lake . . . heading for the ridgeline."

The eagle was dark and huge next to the smaller red-tailed hawks circling around it. It flapped its raggedy, round-tipped wings slowly, just enough to maintain altitude, and soared lazily over the ridge, out of sight. The birders were all excited; the eagle made their day. This was what they had come to the Antelope Valley in winter to see: large raptors, birds of prey who need wild open spaces to hunt.

"Did everyone see the eagle?" Brandt asked. "Did everyone see the tufted duck?" When no one shouted "No," she hollered "OK, let's move on!"

The birders returned to 20 cars and headed down the road slowly, like a funeral cortege, ready to stop in a second at the sighting of a good bird, such as a rare ferruginous hawk, or a lark sparrow, or mountain plovers feeding in plowed fields. Or another eagle, fighting off ravens to feed on a carcass. Even for seasoned birders, the sight of an eagle on the ground is a rare treat. And when 45 people show up for a one-day field trip, it's a sign that birding is getting popular in Southern California.

And it should, because this area is one of the best in the country to look for birds. Nowhere else on the continent can offer high mountains, low and high deserts, oak and riparian woodlands, chaparral, grasslands, coastal and fresh-water wetlands, sandy beaches, rocky coast and open ocean all within a few hours drive of each other; this wide variety of habitats guarantees a large number of resident species.

And just as the climate attracts people from all over the country, lost stray birds from all over North America and even north Asia often are found in backyards, desert oases, golf courses, sewer ponds and other places, enjoying a brief rest or even a whole winter's holiday before heading where they are supposed to belong.

Finally, when colorful, exotic birds escape from caged confinement, they find they can make it on the outside around Southern California almost as easily as in their places of origin. The latest count of bird species occurring in Los Angeles County is 448, which is more than half the birds ever recorded in North America.

A Year-Round Activity

Any time of year is good for birding, but abundance and variety vary with migration patterns. Rufous and Allen's hummingbirds begin passing through on their way north as early as the end of January, but spring migration doesn't pick up until the middle of April, when western tanagers appear in the foothills of the San Gabriels, and flycatchers, warblers and vireos can be found singing in verdant canyons both along the coast and in the mountains.

Birding activity culminates in a rush to the desert oases at the end of May, to find vagrant eastern warblers and other colorful strays; Death Valley on Memorial Day weekend is a mecca for Southland birders.

By the end of June, shore birds have already started south, and the action shifts to coastal estuaries and ponds in the Antelope Valley. Midsummer is the best time to visit the mountains; resident birds up there are most active and findable in late June and early July.

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