Winging It

My year of looking for the insanely beautiful, life-changing birds of Los Angeles

Photograph by Los Angeles Audubon Society Courtesy of Arnold Small Photographic Collection, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History

I See Birds Everywhere

West Hollywood’s Plummer Park is like a lot of man-made green spaces in Los Angeles: a scratchy lawn, a few trees for shade, some tables and benches for eating and gaming. The naked sycamores give away that it’s the new year.

If you close your eyes, you can detect the perfume of their fallen leaves. Two eugenia bushes, laden with purple berries, have grown into trees. Their branches begin to bob as if being pelted by hail. A flock of cedar waxwings, my nominee for the most beautiful bird in the kingdom, has arrived. The waxwings have fierce crested heads like Spartan helmets and minimalist dabs of white, red, and yellow on their golden bodies. They look like they sprang from the head of Zeus. Despite their splendor, they are easy to miss because they make only the slightest of wheezing sounds. They stay just long enough to gorge on berries.

    I glance around expecting others to have noticed, but the Russian émigrés continue to play dominoes and the sunbathing gay men are still snoozing on the lawn. I experience, once again, that sense of belonging to a secret society. No one at the park is paying attention to the waxwings except me. Birds? What birds? Pigeons make a mess, and crows, such a racket! Most people bond with a place through its cuisine or its history or its art or its architecture. I’ve bonded with Los Angeles through its birds. As I watch them, I block out the traffic, the strip malls, the smog.

    There are a lot of theories about bird-watchers, but the most extreme is that the pursuit is a manifestation of the male hunter-gatherer instinct. Bird-watchers do derive gratification from their ability to identify species quickly from memory. The most obsessed are called twitchers, and their grail is to compile a “life list” of hundreds, in some cases thousands, of birds. I am one of those other birders—and there are many of us—who do it to connect with nature and beauty. Birds give me faith in the livability of the city, the hope that it’s not destined to be Mordor. In L.A. birds can take the tiniest handouts of land and live off them. They are here in numbers and varieties you can’t even fathom until you start looking for them. In a city that supposedly has no seasons, birds tell us differently. Few things in Los Angeles say winter like warblers, or spring like mockingbirds, or summer like hummingbirds, or fall like hawks.

    Build It, They Will Come

    I grew up in Montecito and spent much of my youth roaming among the oaks and sycamores that give the area its remarkable tree canopy, my mother ringing a cowbell to call her children home. Santa Barbara County is one of the great birding capitals of the United States, I discovered in classes at the natural history museum. As my sister and I waited to be picked up, we would go to the bird hall. In the center were long, glass-topped cabinets holding nests. If there was no one to stop us, we would stand on the benches to peer down on them. When I was ten, I started my own collection. I should have been analyzing the nests, identifying the materials and how they were being used. Instead, the thimbles and ovoids and bowls felt like art. Later I would think of them as something concocted by Cy Twombly or Robert Rauschenberg, but as a child I responded to their shapes and textures. I have 15 displayed in my home: an oriole’s basket, its weaving like waves frozen in straw; the tightly bound cup of a wrentit threaded, in the manner of a tapestry, with fine hairs; the mockingbird’s jumble of twigs, bark, and leaves, which looks like a bush blew up.

    A friend phones. She’s trimming her acacia, which is dripping with abandoned bushtit nests. I’m welcome to cut some down for my collection. She calls them socks, which is what they look like, sagging on the branches as if stretched from overuse. At her house I notice a Cooper’s hawk nest higher in the tree. One day the male flew into her kitchen while chasing a dove, his dinner. I have a picture in my mind of the hawk’s talons suspended against sea green tiles. My friend lives in West Adams, which in the ’30s and ’40s was home, thanks to segregation, to some of Hollywood’s most successful black actors. There are lots of old, exotic trees around the once-elegant houses, because in the early 1900s settlers couldn’t resist importing them. Everything grew in this climate: palm and jacaranda and mimosa and eucalyptus, trees you never saw in the East. For the birds they’re hotels and restaurants in one.

    My friend led a group of activists in establishing a garden at the elementary school on her street. I walk over, curious as to what bird life has been enticed by the native plantings. Standing in the garden, I count a black phoebe, a scrub-jay, a mockingbird, ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, and an Anna’s hummingbird. At one point the bushtits pass through, twittering and tumbling like a cloud of clowns. Would they be here if this place were still asphalt?

    Back at my friend’s house, I realize there’s another reason the breeding Cooper’s have chosen her acacia. A large Mediterranean-style fountain sits below it, providing not only their water source but also the birds they prey on. We Angelenos have a love affair with fountains. They’re everywhere—front lawns, backyards, malls, large commercial developments—which is why you’ll see a flock of lesser goldfinches in a dense Mid Wilshire neighborhood or Townsend warblers having a splash in a Valley tract. One afternoon at a West L.A. nursery I spot crows, maybe my least favorite bird, bathing in one of dozens of fountains for sale.

    A City of Firsts

    I am jogging in Santa Monica, breathing in the jasmine, and I hear an unfamiliar cry. I follow it to a tree for my first red-naped sapsucker, an uncommon visitor and, according to the timetable in an L.A. birding book, on its way north.

    During the 30 years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, many of my memorable sightings have come in this manner—by happenstance.

    One semester at USC I saw a hermit thrush on my way to the cafeteria. In Santa Monica in the ’80s, lucky to be living in a rent-controlled apartment on entry-level wages, I discovered western tanagers in an orchid tree. On a date at a Dodger game, my binoculars picked out a loggerhead shrike. Visiting the Getty Center, I spied Lawrence’s goldfinches atop a wall. Having afternoon tea at the Huntington, I recognized a Costa’s hummingbird. Even in places where birds shouldn’t thrive, they’ve adapted. I worked downtown for many years and observed red-tailed hawks windsurfing over skid row. Every fall, migrating red-taileds join the residents, and it appears as if every other freeway lamppost has a raptor perched on it. The hawks are junk-food junkies, hunting rodents, lizards, and even cockroaches in the ivy and lantana.

    Outside my old office window—shattered during the 1992 riots—is a row of sycamore trees where a ground-dwelling burrowing owl roosted for three days. Its presence was a mystery until I turned to the bible on birds, The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, and learned that burrowing owls can undertake considerable migrations and land in unlikely places to rest. Rare-owl sightings are the sort of thing that sets off Audubon hot lines. But I don’t discriminate among birds. No matter how many mockingbirds I come across, it will always be a miracle, the one that arced like a scimitar over a blighted stretch of Hollywood.

    By the end of the run I’m calm, hopeful, the noisy internal chatter silent. Birding brings a similar well-being. Through magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have mapped the brains of praying nuns and meditating monks; they’ve recorded how the temporal lobe lights up at the nuns’ spiritual exhilaration, how the frontal cortex is affected by the monks’ detachment. I wonder what the birder’s brain would show. I’m convinced it would reveal some of the monks’ lack of turmoil and, occasionally, the nuns’ perception of God. I know when I’ve questioned my faith, I hear Saint Francis: If birds exist, how can He not?

    Lost in the Canyon

    Most birders have a favorite place they’ll travel to lose themselves. Their havens are a map of L.A. ecosystems: shore breaks and inland lakes, marshes and lagoons, riparian woods and chaparral canyons, coastal scrub and piney mountains. I’m lured again and again to Brentwood’s Sullivan Canyon. The sycamore trees have a rain-forest height and weight about them. They’ve largely muscled out the oak, wild walnut, and bay trees, which make a stand wherever they can find purchase. There are masses of undergrowth: poison oak, of course, lemonadeberry, bush sunflowers, monkeyflower, tree tobacco, sage, anise, and thistles.

    There’s so much jungle that birding must be done by ear. Spring is especially loud; both the residents and migrants are in full cry as the mating game plays out. You quickly get to know which species are the big talkers. The powerful buzz of the spotted towhee is so pervasive that the canyon can feel like a nightclub. The insistent chit-chit-chit has got to be a wren. The kee-eek of the black phoebe has a come-to-order quality that fits perfectly; it’s easily seen, perching sentinel-like on faucets, surveyor sticks, anything low to the ground. I track a two-beat bleat and stare into the tufted gray face of an oak titmouse. The sound produced by the wings of startled California quails is like drumbeats. At dusk I pick up the hushed, bubbling hooos of the western screech owl. On a busy night my flashlight catches one in flight. The wings make no sound as it passes overhead.

    Listening is so critical to birding that I don’t take an iPod or MP3 player on my runs; I rarely even turn on the car radio unless on the highway. I begin to understand why dogs howl. Car horns are the worst: Every honk is like an adrenaline jab. I buy a new space heater for the house and then can’t use it because of the ticking sounds it makes. White noise is torture; every sound is vying for attention.

    Learning to listen for birds carries over into human endeavors, to hearing the nuances in music or the undertones in speech. Psychologists have a name for it: active listening. Essential to counseling, admirable in friends, and the quality that draws us to certain acquaintances, it’s a relationship-enhancing skill. When applied to nature, another world opens up: the crickets calling in the hedges, the bats twittering in the eaves.

    A Big Noise

    A mockingbird spends the year soaking up the noises around him—the garage-door opener, the trash trucks, the car alarms—and experimenting with them.

    It’s a daytime occupation until late spring, when he sings through the night, irritating all but the heaviest sleepers. Guns come to mind, but earplugs are legal. The mockingbird’s just doing his job, first to secure a mate, then to erect a sound barrier around his nest. It’s a shame that we’re diurnal; we should be setting up chairs under the mockingbird, his musical ability is that divine. As philosophy professor David Rothenberg observes in Why Birds Sing, the mockingbird “imitates all in his path, with clear and graspable rhythms. Evenly paced clicks. A break. The same thing sung higher and faster, faster, then a quip…. Rules you think you almost catch—twists you don’t expect, like a fine jazz solo…. He keeps singing. Singing on when there’s no more need. If he’s taunting anyone, it must be us—Fool, you think you can explain me! I sing the song of the world, the recombination of all that I hear. Listen in, and listen good.”

    May is also when the jacarandas burst into color, putting on a show that, like the mockingbirds’ arias, has its own public relations crisis. Cities have stopped installing them as street trees because of the mess the flowers make. But I think that if a tree can sing, this is the one. If the mockingbird is jazz, the jacaranda is a samba, a seductive chant that pulls me out of the house, looking up, spacing out. Sometimes amid its purple haze I make out a downy woodpecker creeping along the bark in search of insects.

    On a Saturday I chaperone a group of children at Raging Waters in San Dimas. While waiting in line for a ride, I hear a bird song so piercingly beautiful that I think it is being piped in, à la Disneyland. I locate the source, a tail-flicking bird the color of acorn powder. It’s a canyon wren, the soprano of the bird world. Why wouldn’t it be here—with all this water and its attendant insect life—singing in delight? The house wren living in my yard hasn’t the skills of its canyon counterpart, but its irascible chatter has a way of dispelling funky moods, as if the bird were saying, Don’t feel sorry for yourself—there’s so much to do.

    In describing birdsong, ornithologists resist assigning human qualities, but they can’t help interpreting the wren’s call as “scolding.” Where they won’t anthropomorphize, poets will. Walt Whitman, in immortalizing the hermit thrush, wrote, “Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song / Loud human song, with voice of utmost woe.” The Native Americans, of course, were moved to acknowledge birds’ vocal gifts. The mockingbird, according to Hopi legend, presented the Southwestern tribes with language, telling them, You shall be a Navajo. You shall be a Hopi. You shall be a Pueblo. One night toward the end of the month I come home from work to find a baby mockingbird in the house. I catch it and marvel how the feathers give the illusion of weight to a creature whose skeleton is almost pure air. I also think, as the baby does its best mockingbird bravado, So this is what all the fuss is about.

    The Wire

    The long days of late spring and early summer, as the young leave their nests, highlight the perils birds face from within their ranks. I admired great horned owls, taking my nieces and nephews on outings in search of them, until I discovered they consume smaller owls. My horror is a sentimental reaction, I admit. Among Los Angeles’s prettiest hawks is one that feeds primarily on birds: the Cooper’s. It accounts for why I am seeing a father house finch worry over his progeny, which are wobbling on the phone lines fully exposed to the raptor. The house finch, despite a prosaic name, is a pretty-in-pink bird that aspires, if not to a songster’s glory, at least to steer his family away from death.

    There’s no hiding on the wires, so it’s the bold who linger there—the thugs, muggers, warriors, and carnivores. Crows frequently scout for mischief from atop the lines. We are responsible for those Hitchcockian swarms that blacken our sky, giving them mounds of garbage to feed on. Our cars provide them with roadkill. The murky runoff from our sprinklers is their spa water. The crows will be with us for all time, preying on baby birds, until an avian disease does them in.

    The phone lines in my backyard are also popular with house sparrows, among the few birds I can’t stand. They vacuum up the food supplies, and their sloppy nests, thrown together inside any available cavity, speak to their trailer trash lifestyle. I read in Sibley that the wily urbanite has even learned to hover in front of automatic door sensors, which explains its presence in supermarket rafters. It has a rapscallion bluster that spooks shier visitors. A male hooded oriole, nesting in a palm in my neighbor’s yard, can stomach them, but the female, a muted green to his hot rod orange, makes just a fleeting appearance on the phone lines. A pair of orange-crowned warblers alight like yellow tassels for a second and are gone.

    House sparrows are an introduced species, two words that chill naturalists. The arrival of nonnatives is sometimes an accident but more often a nostalgic gesture that escalates into disaster. The Hawaiian Islands are a grim example: Almost all of their native birds are endangered. The cardinals, mynahs, and spotted doves that abound were somebody’s idea of charming. Now they are reminders that the islands’ ecology is out of whack. The house sparrow was brought to the eastern United States in the 1800s by homesick Europeans, as was the starling, whose ability to mimic prompted Mozart to purchase one as a pet. Where the sparrows are uncouth, the starlings are ruthless, evicting other species from their nests so they can move in. When, on a visit to Montecito, I see a pair at a treasured woodland, I’m sickened. The barbarians are at the gates.

    The Cruelest Month

    The bald eagle may be the national bird, but America’s idol is the hummingbird.

    It’s on stickers and note cards, hangs from key rings and jewelry, is frozen in flight in ceramic and glass. Its care has spawned an industry just in feeders, gifts for anyone perceived to like birds. I’ve been given two, which I never use because I have so many plants that attract them. All year an Allen’s hummingbird rules my backyard, and this month he’s sparring with a visiting rufous, which looks like a copper Mach 1 jet. They are jousting over a cape honeysuckle, an African import that bears flowers rich in nectar and insects.

    I’m amazed at the number of Allen’s, a species that was a rarity 20 years ago. I share this with Terry Masear, who runs a hummingbird rescue from her West Hollywood home. She, too, has noticed that the Allen’s now make up nearly half of the needy passing through her care. Until recently, the more common bird had been the Anna’s, a ruby-throated, full-figured beauty. The Anna’s, she speculates, is bigger and slower (is it possible for a hummingbird to be thought of as lumbering?). The Allen’s, on the other hand, is Ferrari fast, and it’s also now breeding year-round.

    My theory credits the increase in Allen’s to the adoption of more drought-tolerant plants in L.A., the aloes and sages, the bottlebrush and butterfly bushes that the hummingbirds thrive on. But for as much affection as people lavish on hummingbirds, they’re ignorant of how they endanger them. Domestic cats are killing machines. A photographer friend tells me that he stopped feeding hummingbirds after watching his neighbor’s pets slay as many as eight a week. More controversial are feral cats, which prey nonstop on birds. Birders have appealed to have them euthanized, only to be met with cat lovers’ fury.

    Summer is when hummingbirds are most in danger, the migrants and residents all nesting. It’s also when cities, in a flush of bad timing, send out tree-trimming crews. The tree crews are among the hummingbird rescuers who show up at Masear’s door. Each June and July she forgoes teaching at UCLA to care for the birds, which arrive daily—sometimes hourly. The babies must be fed every 30 minutes during daylight. From the beginning of the flood in April through its ebb in July, she will save more than 130. A rock star delivers a casualty, has his roadie check on its progress, then calls Masear himself. Midmonth, as the numbers wind down, a female Allen’s is found on a South-Central parkway. The rescuer asks to be apprised of the bird’s health, and Masear e-mails him photos. After the bird is released, it returns within days looking exhausted. “She wasn’t ready, and she was telling me that,” says Masear, who put the bird back in the aviary for a rest.

    Years ago I brought an injured Allen’s to a rescuer in Lomita. I received a frank evaluation of the bird’s injuries—a fight—and the pronouncement that it’s a miracle hummingbirds breed, they’re that combative. Anyone who has spent time watching hummingbirds knows of their aggressiveness. I thought they were always at war until I talked to Masear, whose view is heretical but based on years of observation. If you could fly like that, she asks, wouldn’t you play like crazy?

    Bluebirds of Happiness

    Whatever you might think of golf courses, birds love them. So do I. They are giant green belts of trees and shrubs awash in turf-loving bugs and grubs. Deep inside the grounds of the Westwood Veterans Administration is a nine-hole practice course next to an overgrown Japanese garden. Within two holes of play I have seen western bluebirds, a spectacular Cassin’s kingbird, and the even more unexpected Nuttall’s woodpecker, whose presence I pick up after hearing the distinctive thud of a beak on bark.

    This is the time of year I like to play Penmar in Venice, when twilight is long enough that I can finish the course’s nine holes in the window between work’s end and night’s fall. One evening I see a hooded oriole, an airborne flame with a smudge of charcoal on the throat; orioles never fail to impress. But I’m really looking forward to the bluebirds, which swoop low across the course’s fairways, scooping up insects. Their coloring is subtler than a jay’s, like the soft brush strokes in a Renaissance painting as opposed to the jay’s cubist slashes.

    Rancho Park, one of the country’s busiest public courses and the city’s most historic, has a forest of old trees. It might as well be an aviary. It’s so distracting that I repeatedly wander off, breaching golf etiquette. American robins dine under the sycamores near the practice putting green. Red-tailed hawks nest in a eucalyptus along the 18th fairway, and there’s a battalion of hummingbirds skirmishing at the bottlebrush trees at the ninth tee. This is the third course where I see bluebirds, a species that had been in decline. Every birder I talk to credits an Orange County naturalist who waged a guerrilla campaign, installing bluebird nesting boxes throughout the region’s parks and public gardens. Could his crusade be affecting populations this far north?

    Coming Through

    Los Angeles lies in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, a migratory highway stretching from Alaska to Argentina.

    The big traffic jams occur in the spring, when the southerners arrive to avoid their region’s heat, and in the fall as the northerners escape their homeland’s extreme cold. Some birds, like the yellow-rumped warblers, will camp just about anywhere. Others can survive only in a particular habitat. There are few sites more critical than the Madrona Marsh, one of the last of its kind in the county. A vestige of the El Segundo Sand Dune System, the marsh is submerged in the concrete bunkerland known as the Del Amo section of Torrance. It’s incredible to think that a nature sanctuary exists here, like Narnia in the closet.

    I am happiest birding by myself, but there’s always something to be learned from the combined knowledge of a group. The marsh nature center offers a monthly guided bird walk, and I show up. The first bird we see is a Say’s phoebe on the roof of the center; a pair has nested in the building’s eaves for the last three years. I’ve seen many in Santa Barbara and am not impressed until told that it’s the first Say’s to breed at the marsh in 100 years, a validation of the skirmishes to save the 43 acres from development. Our leader is also excited to see a scrub-jay, a common species, so I’m perplexed until he reveals that the West Nile virus had decimated them here. We admire a black-chinned hummingbird nest made from pale sycamore and willow down and encased in spider silk—the Chanel of bird nests. I long to add it to my collection.

    Everyone is soon on the hunt for the vermilion flycatcher that’s been making a star appearance. We’re fooled momentarily by a bright orange male bishop, an African species that is a popular cage bird; some escapees have formed a colony. We run into a crowd of American goldfinches that resemble floating sunflowers. At the pond are juvenile black-crowned night-herons—little hunchbacks—and something else that our leader dismisses as a western wood-pewee. But I’m convinced the shape is a flycatcher’s, and another of the birders agrees. Sure enough, it’s an olive-sided flycatcher, the find of the day. I feel a shot of twitcher pride, a score.

    The presence of the bishops reminds me of the parrots of L.A. They invariably draw attention to themselves with their shrieks and bright colors, like Americans in Paris. They also, like the expat community, say little about the city’s rich culture. The parrot is a tiny part of our bird life, but acquaintances unfailingly bring them up when the conversation turns to wildlife. I’m not at all captivated by them, though I am interested to learn that the red-crowned parrot is in decline in its native Mexico even as its numbers flourish here. I’m more intrigued by the marsh manager’s account of hearing the calls of migrating willets, greater yellowlegs, and killdeer as they fly after dark. A week later, newly attuned, I walk outside my house and pick up killdeer cries cutting through the blue-black night.

    Indian Summer

    I’m about to experience what the twitcher feels in Ecuador or Costa Rica. The heat is setting records in L.A. and making the ocean the place to be. I’m a neophyte when it comes to shore species, familiar mostly with the birds that can be seen from a beach chair: flocks of curlews and godwits, sandpipers and sanderlings moving in tight formations like Beijing performers. Now I have a chance to meet a host of new species.

    The place I choose is the Malibu Lagoon, and it’s delirium inducing. The snowy egrets are so close that I can see the skeletons of the fish they’re grabbing. An eared grebe spends more time under the water than on. The pelicans are hilarious; the fish are so near the surface that the birds just flop around to scoop them up—no dramatic dives called for. The black-bellied plovers are a first for me, as are the Belding’s savannah sparrows, a threatened species. I have two guidebooks open just to make sure I’m not imagining them. Their black-masked buddy, the yellowthroat, is no stranger, but this one practically lands on my head. A bird with an exaggeratedly erect carriage turns out to be an American pipit, another first.

    Birding, I’m even more convinced, is looking beyond the obvious. Most people at the lagoon have an impression of flying and floating things, which is what I used to see. But now I delight in the birds’ specific shapes and colors and markings. I discuss this with a friend who’s written a screenplay, a romantic comedy, about birders. During her research, she was astounded by what happened. When she focused on birds, she also saw the flowers and the insects, the life within life—the never-ending universe of something else.

    In the past a group of gulls was, well, a group of gulls. Weeks later I come upon a flock on the beach in Santa Monica, and out of the blur pops the dignified dark gray Heermann’s, the uncommon glaucous-winged, and the once-overhunted ring-billed, mingling with four Caspian terns. My mind invents a new trick. It takes the birds’ silhouettes and transforms them into something else. The Caspian tern isn’t just the largest and strongest of our terns; it’s an arrow straight from Cupid’s bow. Several sanderlings appear, and they look like pearls rolling across the sand.

    Birders would be lost without their guidebooks, which flag the all-important clues in song, behavior, and appearance that distinguish, say, one kind of sparrow from another. I love Birds of the Los Angeles Region, whose writers include Kimball L. Garrett, resident ornithologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and scourge of the Los Angeles Times; he berates the paper’s reporters over errors in bird identification. Because of its narrower focus, I dip constantly into Birds of the Southern California Coast. The writing is more evocative than most guidespeak. The author, Joan Easton Lentz, is the granddaughter of the western novelist Max Brand, and she has a novelist’s sensibilities. Walking along the creek into Malibu Lagoon, I spy a green heron. I turn to the entry in her book: “If, when scanning the reeds that grow beside a freshwater lake or brackish marsh, you should spot a green heron, consider yourself fortunate. This, our smallest and shiest heron, shows a dark chestnut neck and lovely bluish green wings and back.” As she predicts, the heron takes off with a “loud, emphatic ‘skywock.’ ” I don’t get to see how the bird places a piece of bait—an insect, flower, or twig—on the water to lure fish, but Lentz’s elegant description stays with me.

    Power Birding

    This is the season of extremes. The sun’s vanished by four thirty, but there’s no more intoxicating sight than the sycamores stroking the pink veil of sunset with their golden fingers.

    If you’re going to catch birds, it’s best done early in the morning. A friend has told me about Martin Byhower, a science teacher at the Chadwick School who offers custom birding tours. He suggests meeting at seven and is pleased that I’m content to roam Ken Malloy Harbor Regional Park in Wilmington. He calls it “the poster child for everything that can go wrong with an urban park.” For the past 20 years he’s been obsessed with its rehabilitation.

    From Byhower I learn the term for what I am: a “yard patch” birder. I get a brief education in lingo. WNK stands for “we’ll never know,” said after a promising bird eludes detection. Jizz is from the military acronym GISS, “general impression of size and shape,” used in warplane spotting and more recently to describe the talent for discerning a species solely on a quick perception. I’m a little afraid of being around serious birders, and Byhower takes one look at my older-model binoculars and tells me I can do better. This slams me right back to my college days at USC, when I was often asked what car I drove (’68 Rambler) and what my father did for a living (high school teacher). But when schoolmates heard where I was from, the envy was unmistakable. I came from the world of gilded estates. It’s no different with birders. My binoculars might be laughable, but when I say I’m from bird-rich Santa Barbara, they almost bow in its direction.

    Byhower—thin, animated, and with a beard the same gold-gray as his hair—is a superb guide. He’s passionate about birding but not nearly as driven as the twitcher I read about who survived a near-death experience in Africa on her way to a record 8,400 birds, only to die in a car collision in Madagascar while in pursuit of more. Harbor Regional has all the problems Byhower alluded to. Trash collects along the lake; homeless camp here. But the variety of bird life takes my mind off both. Above a field is a white-tailed kite, which is known as a PR bird: The sight of one hovering is so spectacular, it can make an instant birder of anyone. I see my first Lincoln’s sparrow, a strikingly patterned bird, and black-throated gray warblers. Byhower lures them with an iPod on which he has loaded bird songs. We also commune with red-breasted and red-naped sapsuckers in a clump of trees near the parking lot. His day is made when he detects two rarities: a Ross’s goose hanging out with the commoners at Machado Lake and two Thayer’s gulls.

    We head to Ocean Trails in Palos Verdes, a dramatic area of coastal scrub next to the Trump golf course that the billionaire restored as part of a development deal. We’ve come for the California gnatcatcher, a threatened species found only in coastal Southern California and Baja. People travel to Palos Verdes from all over the world for them. Their call, like a kitten’s mew, gives away the birds’ location, and we find two. We walk to a cliff where cats have wiped out the rock wrens, but then we spy a survivor. It’s heartbreaking and joyful at the same time. We’re on the subject of loggerhead shrikes and their decline when we see one perched along the golf course. It flies off and so do we—down the fairway. I’m pondering death by golf ball and the bleeding scratches on my legs. Then we spot the shrike again and execute, in birding celebration, a high five.

    The Numbers Game

    From late December through early January, Audubon chapters throughout the United States conduct “Christmas bird counts,” an event that’s part state of the union, part bragging rights. Every region picks a day, and then the charge is on to tally as many bird species as possible in 24 hours. I join Byhower’s South Bay chapter for a count on December 21. The day is about to dawn bright and warm, though we don’t know that yet because it’s a dark and frigid five thirty in the morning. I’m with Byhower at Harbor Park, where he is playing the calls of the elusive Virginia rail and the sora on his iPod. He’s hoping to get them to respond before the other birds wake up and the din begins. We’re also trying for bitterns; there was a breeding population here, but the city used a machine to trim the reeds around the lake and the blades chopped them up. While the plants have since grown back, the bitterns haven’t rebounded. We see several herons of the green, great blue, and black-crowned night varieties, great and snowy egrets, and scads of yellowthroats, which seem undaunted by the scum, litter, and feral cats along the shore.

    Byhower assigns the teams, and he and I cover the park’s golf course. By now the sun is level with the rooftops, and the golfers are out. Byhower’s experience is that his presence has a subliminal effect; even as the golfers strain to hit the fairway, they shank their balls toward the cart path where he’s walking. I watch for errant swings as I record Byhower’s sightings on paper. An immature red-tailed hawk is the first; it’s eating a kill on a chain-link fence. At one point Byhower heads into a wooded section too muddy for me, so I sit by a tee box and watch a flock of house finches perform aerial maneuvers. One golfer jokes that “we’re going to shoot some birdies,” then whiffs the ball.

    At lunch we do paperwork; rare-bird viewings require special forms reassuring the parent organization that the claimants are telling the truth. Birders tend to be an earnest lot, but as one team member reaches the part asking for the bird’s sex, he cracks, “Lots of it.” We’re holding our breath as the numbers are added: 76 species. They’re disappointed. They had hoped for at least 80. But I’m astonished by the plethora of birds in this down-at-the-heels park. I find out later that a record 176 species were counted within Los Angeles.

    Caring about wild animals can bring despair: the vanishing tigers in Asia, the rhino poaching in Africa, the wolves hunted by plane in Alaska, the cougars in the Santa Monica Mountains, doomed to incest and early death, trapped by freeways. Their plight can prompt in me an irrational desire to rid the planet of people. The birds show that nature can live among us. They also tell us when we’re messing up. The disappearance of the pelicans in the 1960s because of DDT (I cry when I spot them, remembering being at the beach decades ago and seeing none, as if the Apocalypse had come) brought a ban on its use and scrutiny of other pesticides. The exhaustive Smithsonian handbook on birds has entries describing the man-made degradations each species faces. I can’t read them until I realize that if I don’t, I won’t know what to do in my own backyard. Los Angeles has the blessed company of birds. When I read in the Smithsonian guide that Allen’s hummingbirds are in decline in the American west, my response is, You should see how many we have in L.A.