Friday, March 30, 2007

Bolsa Chica

Yesterday afternoon I went down to Bolsa Chica to see the changes that have been made since I was last there. (Egad! that was in 2002! Where did the time go?) Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach, CA, is an ecological reserve of tidal mudflats that has some of the best birding in the country. The number of birds and the number of species one can see here is "fabulous."

Bolsa Chica is part of the Pacific Flyway, the "River of Migrating Birds" that extends from Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in the north to the tip of Argentina in the south. Each year millions of birds make this trip twice! The Southern California coastline offers over 19 bays and estuaries that provide a rest stop and feeding ground for these mighty travellers. Sadly, this is only 10% of the coastal wetlands that used to be available for birds. What makes for a good rest stop for birds also makes a good harbor and scenic spot on which man likes to build houses. Bolsa Chica is one place where many people have worked tirelessly to prevent that from happening to this site.

My husband and I have birded here since we got hooked on birdwatching in the 90s. We were one of the first to contribute to the Land Trust which has been so successful in preserving this treasure. One of the more recent things they have done and which was the reason for my trip is to remove the dam that had kept the sea water from flowing in and out of the mudflat area with the tides. You can see the opening in the far right corner of this photo. I wanted to see what changes this made in the habits of the birds. I was pleasantly surprised.

It was a glorious, sunny, but windy afternoon. I parked my car in the small parking area in the middle of the reserve as you enter from Pacific Coast Highway. There is a boardwalk here that crosses the water and allows views of either end of the traditional area that the reserve owned. Now 880 acres have been added including the tidal areas further in from the ocean which used to be oil fields. That didn't stop the birds, but the fences kept the people out. Now it is all open with only some posted signs to warn you of nesting areas. You walk along the top of berms that separate the various areas which also gives you a good view of the birds as it is otherwise all very flat and wide open to the sky and with very little vegetation.

I first spotted a stingray in the water below the bridge and lots of clam shells along the shoreline that I hadn't noticed before. Algae along the edges of the water indicated that the tide was out. A Belding's Savannah Sparrow, only found in Southern California salt marshes, greeted me in exactly the same location that we had always seen these sparrows. A man coming towards me from the other direction saw my camera and excitedly told me that I could get great photos further along where the terns were roosting for the day. He was not a birder and was clearly bowled over by the experience of seeing hundreds of birds suddenly take off into the air on some unheard cue, then settle back down again. It's also amazing how they can fly in perfect formation with each other, turning the same way in an instant.

It was very windy out on the point where some metal benches had been erected for viewing. But cold though I was, I was fascinated by watching the show that the terns were putting on and also by the chance to see so many other shorebirds from this one spot. The terns were making a terrible racket as they took off and settled back down several times. While the takeoff was a scramble as the top picture shows, the birds being alarmed into flight, the landing was more carefully controlled with each bird landing just so far from his neighbor and all facing into the sun and wind. Some cormorants quietly lined the edge of the flat the terns were settled on with the air of being above all the ruckus. A man came along who lost his hat in the wind and when he went down into the forbidden area to retrieve it, the birds rose into the air one more time but this time they did not come back.

I moved on to the path that led to the flood control channel thinking I had seen more than enough for one day, but I was so wrong. The channel was full of ducks. I had not expected to see many ducks. It was like greeting old friends. I am a little rusty especially when it comes to ducks. The names swirled around in my head as I remembered them one by one.

Here is a listing of all the species that I saw. There were 35 in all.

Elegant Tern
Royal Tern
Caspian Tern
Snowy Egret
Great Egret
Great Blue Heron
Pied-billed Grebe
Eared Grebe
Western Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant

Brown Pelican
Ring-billed Gull
American Coot
Red-breasted Merganser
Hooded Merganser
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Green-winged Teal

Surf Scoter
Lesser or Greater Scaup
Ruddy Duck
Black-bellied Plover
Western Sandpiper

Short-billed Dowitcher
Marbled Godwit
Long-billed Curlew
Greater Yellowlegs
White-crowned Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow

And last but not least the American Avocet in breeding plumage. (See those lovely red necks? They would be plain white in the winter.) I had walked all the way around from one side of the channel to the other to get a closer look at some avocets and then discovered two more right by my car in the parking lot which once again proves the first rule of birding: the best birds are always by the parking lot!

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