Need a new pandemic hobby? Southern California is ‘paradise’ for bird watchers

A vermillion flycatcher perches on a branch at the San Gabriel River Trail, North of Del Amo in January of this year. (Kim Moore | kimssight.zenfolio.com)

When Kim Moore takes walks in the park, she doesn’t focus on the path ahead of her. Instead, she’s got her eyes on the trees, looking for a flicker of color that may mark the presence of a bird waiting to be photographed. 

“I think everybody identifies things from the time they were a child. You know what a bird is, and you probably know what a pigeon is. So that’s when you started identifying things,” Moore said. “I wanted to know what were the things that I was photographing.”

Kim Moore started photographing wildlife a little more than a decade ago. In 2007, she replaced her front lawn with a Southern California-friendly garden. The lavenders, daisies, kangaroo paws and sage attracted visitors to her garden— insects and birds. She started photographing the visitors, “in awe of the diversity that started to appear,” she wrote in her blog. 

Since then, she’s documented over 700 species of flora and fauna in Long Beach and Signal Hill alone. That’s 274 species of birds, 367 species of insects (including 27 species of butterflies), 56 species of spiders, 14 species of mammals and 12 species of reptiles and amphibians. 

“I wanted to know what things were,” she said. “To learn more about what’s around me.”

Bird watching has gained popularity during the pandemic

At the El Dorado Nature Center, visitorship has “skyrocketed” according to Park Naturalist Brooke Davis. The center opened back up on Mother’s Day of last year. 

“[It’s] one of the few places that people can get out of their house with their kids, their families and get a little reprieve from, you know, just sort of being isolated,” Davis said. “Our trails are extremely busy.”

Though she didn’t know exactly how many of those attendees were bird watchers, she said that they “come with the territory” and that she’d noticed an increase in wildlife photographers at the park.

With case numbers still high enough to warrant fear of contact with strangers, some are practicing observation in their own backyards. 

“I’ve been spending more time in my own garden, in my own neighborhood, so I’m enjoying the birds around my own neighborhood even more than usual,” Mary Parsell, President of the El Dorado Audubon Society, said. “I have more time to enjoy whatever is overhead.”

According to eBird, an online database for bird observations, the bird migration app BirdCast registered 1.5 million views in 2020, more than doubling last year’s total, and added three times as many users. 

Merlin Bird ID, a popular identification app created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, was installed on 1.4 million new devices last year, twice the rate of the previous year.

Parsell said that, even though the regular Audubon Society walks have been cancelled due to COVID-19, people are still bird watching on their own, like Moore. 

“It has totally maintained my sanity, being able to walk outdoors. It’s just wonderful,” Moore said. “And since I’ve had fewer other outlets, it’s one that was readily available and fit right in with my life.”

Moore catalogues her observations on iNaturalist, a website for sharing biodiversity information and crowdsourcing species identification. According to iNaturalist’s 2020 annual report, people observed more than ever in 2020. The number of observers on the site also beat previous annual counts. 

Verifiable observations made each year, measured by weeks, increased in 2020. (iNaturalist)

Moore is ranked first in Long Beach for her identifications, 1,788 in Long Beach and 25,860 in total, which includes species that are identified more than once. 

Her profile states that she’s “enthusiastically trying to photograph and identify every critter in my city and maybe even all of Southern California.”

But Moore said that identifying every “critter” is just a loose goal. Her main priority: “I want to photograph as much as I can and learn as much as I can.”

Observing birds in Long Beach

After years of birding “many days of the year,” Moore has seen enough birds to know where to observe them. 

Warblers can be found in most parks. Wardlow Park and Hartwell Park are good for flycatchers. Vermilion flycatchers are common in San Gabriel parks and around the San Gabriel River. 

A black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia) photographed at Deforest Park in 2019. (Kim Moore | kimssight.zenfolio.com)

“Then you’ve got the beach, which is a completely different habitat. And then you have, like Hartwell Park,” she said. “In each of those different habitats, you are going to have different birds and different insects.”

When she’s birdwatching, she looks for “interesting behavior,” how they interact, how she can learn more about their place in the environment, particularly predator-prey relationships. But interesting behavior doesn’t have to be qualified by a fight to survive. 

Earlier this week, she saw an Anna’s hummingbird at Wardlow Park. If you’re lucky, she said, you’ll get to see a hummingbird in the nest or watch the chicks hatch. This time, she was extra lucky. Moore got to watch the hummingbird crafting a nest from scratch.

“It collects spider webs to build the nest and then taps them down,” she said. “She was stamping her feet inside the nest and moving, wiggling around in the thing to make the cup.”

She documents her observations on a blog, highlighting interesting behavior and describing the distinct personalities of the birds she observes. 

An Anna’s hummingbird observed at the San Gabriel River. (Kim Moore | kimssight.zenfolio.com)

“Just like people on social media, they are eating, primping, dancing and playing,” she writes. 

A whimbrel is a “brat” for bothering a marbled godwit “minding its own business”: “The Whimbrel poked the Godwit in the butt and pulled out a feather.”

She might notice something unusual in a bird’s diet. A kestrel munches on a figeater beetle in January: “That is rather late in the season for that beetle.”

She catalogues her observation ‘firsts:’ “A California Scrub Jay found a Western Lizard tasty. I had heard they eat them, but this is the first time I witnessed it. I generally see them eating acorns, or maybe backyard peanuts.”

Other times, Moore shares her own perspective on birds: “‘Cute’ is not a term often applied to gulls, but Mew Gulls are comparatively smaller and, in the gull world, can be called cute.”

In her blog, Kim Moore writes, “‘Cute’ is not a term often applied to gulls, but Mew Gulls are comparatively smaller and, in the gull world, can be called cute.” (Kim Moore | kimssight.zenfolio.com)

Sometimes, her observations lead her to more questions: “A Western Gull seemed to amuse itself repeatedly dropping and catching a stick in flight. Do birds play?”

“Each photo in my set has some story, but I can’t tell them all,” she writes. 

Southern California is ‘paradise’ for birders

On the first of each year, Moore participates in a New Years tradition she and a couple friends created: The Long Beach 100. With a group of fellow naturalists, they identify 100 species of flora and fauna in a single day. 

For experienced naturalists and birdwatchers, this task isn’t too difficult. To the untrained eye, however, potential observations go unnoticed.

“I met a woman who was walking her dog and chatted with her,” Moore said. “I had pulled up my list and I think I had seen like 18 species of birds that day at Wardlow Park, and she walks her dog all the time. She had never seen half of that.”

If residents went birding once a week in places like the El Dorado Nature Center, Parsell said, they could see up to 165 species in a single year. 

“It’s really paradise in a way, for birders,” Parsell said, pointing out that Long Beach birders have access to a diverse range of bird-watching spots: nature centers, wetlands, the coast and other environments a short drive away. 

Moore said that bird watching also helps her stay more attuned to the seasons.

“I have family back east who say they would never live in California because you don’t have seasons,” Moore said. “When you see two bushtits at a time, you know it’s spring. Bushtits flock in large flocks, but some time in spring they start to pair up. When they’re pairing up, you only see two at a time.”

Bird identification for beginners

Parsell said that Audubon Society members are typically identified by their floppy hats and binoculars, but neither of these are essential to bird watching. 

“Connecting community to nature, sharing an interest in nature, everyone has their own perspective,” Moore said. “There’s so many ways of meeting others, getting involved and helping, helping to educate, as well as sharing what you’re doing.”

Though bird watching can be tedious, scanning the skies and tree branches for specs of movement, it doesn’t have to be. 

Parsell shared the words of a fellow bird watcher: “The reason I like to watch birds is because it’s an excuse to go outside, to remember my childhood. And, you know, she said, I have an excuse to climb around under bushes.”

Novice bird watching at the El Dorado Nature Center

Davis shared a few birds that novice bird watchers could find at the El Dorado Nature Center.

Canada Geese

“They typically nest [at the El Dorado Nature Center] every year, so they’re just coming back. There have been a lot of territorial displays and honking. Everyone loves to stop and kind of see. They’re big birds [that are] easy to identify.”

Skill Level: Novice

Red-Shouldered Hawks

“We have a pair of red-shouldered hawks, which have a nest in our entrance just as people come through the gates, up in the trees there, and they’re very vocal. They’re flying around and doing displays and making their calls.”

Skill Level: Novice

Allen’s Hummingbird

“We have a lot of hummingbirds that typically nest early in the year, so they’re already flying around. Some of the flowers are blooming here, so they’re out and active on our feeders plus the flowers on the trails.”

Skill Level: Novice

Birds to observe at El Dorado Park for more advanced birders: “A few of the birds who nest here throughout the spring in the summer, a bunch of them are all starting to sing […] just in the last probably month here,” Davis said. “They’re all sort of urban kind of birds as well, that [residents] probably see around, but they all have really pretty songs and are kind of popping up more on the trees.”

Orange-crowned warbler observed at Heartwell Park. (Kim Moore | kimsssight.zenfolio.com)

Song sparrow observed in El Dorado Area III. “That’s one that we’ve had a beautiful song and we’ve been kind of seeing out in the meadows,” Park Naturalist Brooke Davis said. (Kim Moore | kimssight.zenfolio.com)
House wren observed in San Pedro. (Kim Moore | kimssight.zenfolio.com)

Novice bird watching at Willow Springs Park

Snowy Egret

According to The Cornell Lab, snowy egrets are commonly found in coastal wetlands. Willow Springs Park is home to seasonal freshwater wetlands.

Skill Level: Novice

Black Phoebe

According to The Cornell Lab, black phoebe don’t stray far from their wintering and breeding areas. They require a source of mud for nest-building.

Skill Level: Novice

All photos courtesy Kim Moore. More photos can be found on her blog.

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