A Tradition That’s Not Just for the Birds

Last Sunday was the day of the 19th annual Denny and Jack Smith Bird Walk at Descanso Gardens, up in La Canada.

In the beginning, it was known as the Jack Smith Bird Walk. In time, perhaps because my wife always shared the hardship of going up into the foothills at 8 o’clock in the morning on the second Sunday of December, it became known as the Jack and Denny Smith Bird Walk. Eventually, her name led mine. How that came about I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times.

When we got up Sunday morning the wind was blowing fiercely. I looked out the kitchen door and saw that all our deck chairs had blown over. The umbrella table had blown out of its heavy steel base and traveled across the lawn. Its plastic top was cracked from side to side.

The damage was heavy on our hill. Broken trees, fallen branches, trash barrels blown over. There was hardly any traffic. On Linda Vista Avenue in Pasadena we saw only two or three cars and a band of hardy women jogging.


The wind was icy. “There won’t be anybody there,” I said. “There probably won’t even be any birds.”

We were two or three minutes late. About 60 birders were gathered outside the gate around Warren Peterson, our leader. They were all bundled up in foul-weather gear. They looked cold but hardy.

“They have to be crazy,” I said.

Peterson said that because of the wind damage the park was closed. He was waiting for the supervisor to OK the walk. I was amazed to see so many regulars. Over the years many of their names and faces have become familiar. They are tough, cheerful and friendly.


The routine is simple. We all set out in a ragged troop behind our leader. Some carry binoculars and cameras, some telescopes on tripods. Some just tag along, probably thinking about hot coffee and breakfast.

Anyone who sees a bird calls out its name. Our leader sees most of them first. I usually fall behind, renewing my acquaintance with old-timers. When the walk is over I am amazed to hear that we have sighted 30 birds, or whatever. I almost never see any birds at all.

We had hardly set out last Sunday, after getting the OK, when an enormous bird swooped directly across the road in front of us. “Great horned owl,” our leader shouted.

That was as auspicious a beginning as we had ever had. I was talking to a woman in a Windbreaker and woolen pants and a Scottish cap when someone sighted an Audubon’s warbler. Everyone looked up into the tree in which the warbler had been seen. I saw nothing but leaves.


Of course I no longer have to prove myself. The bird walk was instituted back in 1968 by the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society in honor of my sighting of the first common grackle ever seen in Southern California. None has ever been seen since.

“I think I hear a kingfisher,” a woman told me confidentially.

“What do they sound like?” I asked.

She said, “They go ech-ech-ech-ech.” I heard nothing but the wind crashing through the oak trees. Hundreds of acorns were scattered on the ground. A man picked one up and sliced it in two and exposed the yellow meat, along with a fat pale worm. The worm had burrowed into the acorn and was living in there in the dark, eating himself to death. Why would the Creator waste his genius on such a creature?


We walked up to the observation house overlooking the lake. I stayed outside in a patch of sun with several other stragglers. We could hear the ducks. I wondered how they could stand it, being in the water on a day like this. “Great blue heron!” someone cried. So the heron was back. What a showboat. He turned up almost every year.

I climbed up to the fence around the lake and looked across it to where the heron was standing in some bamboo trees. He was preening himself. Obviously he enjoyed the attention. I also saw some ducks and I might have seen a grebe.

When our leader dismissed us he said we had sighted 26 birds. I had sighted only two and some ducks.

I’ll be back next year, though. You never know when you’re going to see a snowy egret.