We take hushed steps toward our target, but the pebbly asphalt of the Wildwood Canyon road adds a crunch to our steps that gives us away. It's that easy to lose your mojo.
The towhee, once safely stooping for a drink from the runoff from a morning sprinkler shower, flicks his head to spy us with a bright, blood-red eye. Then he's back in the brush to wait out these possible predators: me, my wife and our guide, Nick Wilhelm.
But we're just here to watch the little guy. His black head and white-and-black banded wings cover a stout orange breast, reminding me of a robin. And if it weren't for Wilhelm, that's what I'd probably guess.
Wilhelm and Mike McHorney lead bird expeditions once a month at Wildwood Canyon. Until recently it was just McHorney, a lifelong bird lover who led the tours solo for 14 years. Wilhelm's retirement from middle school education gave him time to work on his Life List — a birder's bucket list of all the species they want to see in person.
McHorney's life list can be seen at the Stough Canyon Nature Center — the retired Burbank parks and recreation employee is also an amateur photographer, and his pictures are posted all over the center, sharing with visitors a small sample of the wildlife they'll see in Burbank's hills.
The duo leads birding expeditions on the second Sunday of each month. All you need is a good pair of binoculars and a way to get to Wildwood Canyon at 9 a.m. The rest of the show is in the hands (or claws) of the “actors” — and McHorney and Wilhelm will provide the narration.
“Just like we would be in the air conditioning on a hot morning, that's theirs,” Wilhelm says as we watch the towhee scramble back under a bush.
The binoculars I brought were sub-par, to say the least — in birding it's more important to have a wide field of vision than magnification, Wilhelm tells me. My plastic yellow binoculars are fine for sitting at the circus 100 rows up; they're less adept at quick recon for a shadow flitting by. I borrow a pair from Wilhelm and we soon learn I have a knack for spotting the wren-tit zipping through the sumac.
I giggle at the name. So do middle-schoolers, Wilhelm says.
On an average morning, McHorney and Wilhelm will spot eight to 15 species, depending on the time of year. There's always a possibility of a rare bird being blown in from the sea, or a migratory bird taking an early or late vacation.
That gets my imagination going, and I set out to search for bald eagles and flamingos. Then Wilhelm shares his maps of migration patterns, and I'm shown the odds of finding a flamingo are about as good as a woodpecker asking us for a toothpick.
McHorney says bird watching may be the biggest spectator extracurricular activity in the world — if you'd ever had a bird feeder in your yard, you're a birder. The serious watchers make it a lifelong affair — McHorney got his start at age 12, raising parakeets in his back yard that he sold to local pet shops. But there's a gap in his birding history that coincides with his discovery of the opposite sex.
“I started getting interested in girls and I met my wife, and birds drifted in the background,” he said.
Wilhelm's love of birds also developed at an early age, on his family's farm in Ohio. His mother loved nature, and started his ornithological education. His father was more of a pragmatist.
“A bird was just a bird [to him],” Wilhelm recalled. “He wasn't, ‘Let's find out what it is.'”
Until last Sunday, that was my view too. In about 45 minutes, though, we spotted six different species of birds, and four of them I know I never noticed before. By the end, Wilhelm had us listening for different calls, whipping our binoculars across broad swaths of scrub brush (“Start glassing this pine,” Wilhelm instructs), and investigating the telltale signs of an avian habitat.
I never thought of bird poop as a road map. This destination's every bit as important as the journey.
Bird-watching hikes take place at 9 a.m. every second Sunday of each month at Wildwood Canyon off Harvard Street. For information, contact Stough Canyon Nature Center at (818) 238-5440.