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For the Birders

Guide takes beginners and veterans alike on monthly ornithology walks.


Here's a new way of thinking about the apparently simple business of bird-watching: "It takes a long time to be a beginner."

So says Gerry Haigh, who leads beginners and veterans on bird walks the first Sunday of each month in the Trippet Ranch area of Topanga State Park. The walks are sponsored by the Los Angeles Audubon Society and the Sierra Club.

Although the walks are designed for beginners, some people have been attending the walks for years, even after taking birding trips to Yosemite, Maine and Costa Rica, Haigh said. People are attracted by the rich variety of birds in the oak groves, meadows, pond and chaparral, Haigh said.

"We're living on the interface between nature and the urban world, with large wild areas here in the Santa Monica Mountains," he said.

Los Angeles County has more bird species than any other in North America except San Diego County, according to the Audubon Society.

Haigh has been keeping records of bird-sightings in the park since 1972. Through the years, the volunteer, who's a clinical psychologist, has developed a charming way of introducing newcomers to birding while also providing a satisfying experience for veterans.

The three-hour walks start at 8 a.m., with about 30 showing up each time to participate in California's fastest-growing avocation, according to the National Audubon Society.

"It's in no way strenuous--more of a saunter, because we're always stopping and looking for birds," he said.

Haigh's introduction involves learning the names of a few birds that walkers are likely to see, including starlings and hawks.

"Now let's look at the 'wire birds,' " Haigh is likely to say, pointing to birds perched on phone lines in the parking lot.

"What did you see?" he will ask, to find out if participants noticed the shape of a bird's tail or whether its head looked big or small in proportion to its body. He prefers to stress careful observation and listening, rather than book learning.

The group follows him from the pond near the park entrance (where herons and an occasional kingfisher are sometimes seen) in the direction of Mulholland Highway to a point where soaring birds, such as red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures, and a patch of the Pacific Ocean are often visible.

The walk returns to the park entrance by a different route. At the end, Haigh often tells participants, "Thank you. We'll see you next month." A nice approach to guiding beginners.


"An Ideal Trip for a Beginning Birder," Sierra Club / Audubon Society bird-watching walk led by Gerry Haigh, Sunday, 8-11 a.m., Trippet Ranch area of Topanga State Park. Walk is free; parking is $6. Call (323) 876-0202 or visit

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