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Leaving the fast lane behind for a birder's-eye view

June 26, 2008|Pete Thomas

If YOU stop and listen carefully -- if you make a conscious effort to tune out your lush Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve surroundings -- you can detect the hum of traffic on the 405 Freeway.

But soon enough you'll forget the craziness that surrounds you, and become engrossed with the sights and sounds within.

Swallows dart about, almost bat-like. Grackles squawk and sparrows sing. Grebes make you blush as they decide, as Muriel Kotin so eloquently states, "to make whoopie" while you're watching them scooter across the lake.

"Kids often come up with a saying like, 'Wow! This is just like a National Geographic episode,' " says Kotin, who is president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society.

Strolling through the refuge on a balmy afternoon, she proclaims, "This is like being in a national park without having to leave the Valley."

And it's almost true. The manicured flood-control basin west of the freeway, adjacent to Burbank Boulevard and Woodley Avenue, is a virtual oasis: 225 acres watched over by cottonwoods, willows and sycamores, aflutter with avian wildlife.

The Valley Audubon Society, one of the refuge's many stewards, offers four-hour walks -- open to birders of all levels -- at 8 a.m. on the first Sunday of each month.

On this hot Monday, Kotin leads a private tour. Shade and a breeze are godsends. She points to a starling in flight, and to towhees hunting amid fallen leaves, as we approach Wilderness Lake. The 11-acre pond, fed with reclaimed water via Haskell Creek, is the reserve's heart and soul. Great-tailed grackles banter about, noisily, as if they own the place. On the opposite shore, two great egrets stand motionless, like twin ivory statues, poised to strike passing fish.

On an island beach, a great blue heron spreads its wings into the breeze, as if to cool its underarms. Above this magnificent bird, draped like shady-looking ornaments in the trees, are dozens of double-crested cormorants. Some add straw to nests. A few plunge into the lake. In one nest, tucked closely together, a family of four settles in for the evening.

It's a scene of contentment: proof that if you foster open space as wildlife habitat, they will come -- and in the fall and winter, when Canada geese and other waterfowl arrive, this will ring truer still.

But alas, there is the hum of freeway traffic, a reminder of looming trouble. Caltrans is considering plans for a new connector ramp for the 405-101 Freeway interchange. Two proposals entail impacting part of the reserve.

Kotin looks to the south and envisions a new onramp cluttered with motorists curling upward through the southern end -- and that's not a scene of contentment.

Kotin hopes that environment groups and agencies arguing on one side or the other will hash out an adequate compromise.

Kotin crosses the creek, leaves the shade, and gazes to the west across a vast field. A western kingbird surveys from atop a dry snag. A black-crowned night heron lifts off and a brilliantly colored oriole snatches a moth in midair.

It's dinner hour. Unfortunately for Kotin, who lives in Malibu, it's also rush hour.





WHERE: Off Woodley Avenue, near Burbank Boulevard

BIRD WALKS: First Sunday of every month, 8 a.m.-noon. Details: (661) 299-6986, or e-mail kris.olhlenkamp@

INFO: Refuge phone and website: (818) 756-9710; horticulture/ sepulvedabasin.htm

TIP: Best in mornings and late afternoons. Bring binoculars.

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