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WINGS | So SoCal

Beak Count

June 16, 1996|Naomi Glauberman

Do you know that white-throated swifts copulate in midair?" Dave Bontrager asks, pointing out some swooping birds over the chaparral. Before anyone can answer, two swifts meet, hook together and whirl madly--a free-falling pinwheel, certain to crash. At the last possible second they separate, fly up and try again.

The swifts are checked off the list.

Despite the swifts' acrobatics, the National Audubon Society's annual birdathon is not about bird-watching. It's about the list or, more precisely, the length of the list. Each year, on whatever spring day local chapters deem most propitious, staff and members throughout the country dash about compiling as many sightings as possible. With sponsors making pledges for each species that's spotted, the birdathon earns between $2 million to $3 million for the society.

"We should expect to see 120 species," says Melanie Ingalls, director of the society's Los Angeles office and the official keeper of today's list. This year, Ingalls has joined forces with Bontrager, perhaps the world expert on the California gnatcatcher, and Pete DeSimone, the manager of the Audubon's Starr Ranch Sanctuary. The ranch, which lies 60 miles southeast of Los Angeles, comprises 4,000 acres of deep canyons and rolling hills that were deeded to the society in 1973.

DeSimone meets us at the ranch's northern gate; he has already identified dozens of birds. Driving through the ranch, he spots two baby red-tail hawks in their nest, but the occupants of a Cooper's hawk nest are not visible. DeSimone considers climbing the tree so they can make the official count. At the far end of the ranch we hook up with Bontrager, who hands Ingalls a list of the 37 species he's counted that morning.

Along a dusty road, Bontrager catches sight of cactus wrens and California gnatcatchers, as well as those lascivious swifts. At a filled-in gravel pit, ruddy ducks, great blue herons, pied-billed grebes and American coots are added to the list. "Okay, we've gotten all three hummingbirds--Costa's, Anna's and black-chinned," Ingalls reports.

Satisfied that we're making fair progress, DeSimone leads us to a picnic site for a late lunch. We linger in the shade, idly watching a house wren fly about its nest until DeSimone, seized by list lust, urges us on, "This is work, not fun" he says.

By upper Newport Bay, the list has grown to 85 species. "Was that a least tern?" asks DeSimone.

"I think we have to get a better look," says Bontrager. Patience is rewarded: a Caspian tern, a Forster's tern and an elegant tern are also added to the list. When we pause to admire four baby coots, their orange beaks opening as their mother feeds them tiny fish, DeSimone admonishes us. "Enough of watching these little birdies. Birds are bucks."

At a mud flat, Ingalls announces we've reached 97 species. "Okay, we're not leaving until we get 100," DeSimone says. Bontrager then identifies a double-crested cormorant and a semipalmated plover. The honor of our last slot -- to some dismay -- goes to a Brewer's blackbird, a ubiquitous scavenger usually seen snatching fries in McDonald's parking lots.

Back at the ranch, atop a small rise in Bell Canyon, DeSimone spots two violet-green swallows, and in front of the house a Western bluebird is sitting on a post. The total for the day is 114. As if in celebration, the bluebird spins and swirls, diving for bugs in a spectacular whirl of blue. 'Finally," sighs Ingalls, "after all this listing, a proper bit of bird-watching."

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