The Encino birders hit less of the trail than most of their colleagues
The dawn was bright and very cold. The safari gathered before a steel gate on an Encino cul-de-sac, falling into the pattern displayed by hunters assembling on a frosty morning: Mumble, hunch shoulders, blow briskly to warm hands and scan the sky.
The hunters had gathered to stalk the birds of the Encino Reservoir, but they were armed only with binoculars, telescopes and notebooks.
San Fernando Valley members of the Audubon Society were playing their small part in an annual day-after-Christmas ritual. Throughout the United States, the society was conducting its bird census. The reservoir group was one of six such expeditions in the Valley alone. The reports, passed to higher headquarters, are combined to reach city and state totals, and eventually a grand national bird count.
While most Americans were sleeping off holiday excesses, legions of bird watchers were springing from their beds and striding forth, woolly scarfs wrapping their faces and floppy cloth hats jammed down over their ears, pockets stuffed with bird identification books, cookies and vacuum bottles of hot cocoa. All across America, thousands of sturdy hiking boots and scruffy athletic shoes hit the trail.
The Encino birders hit less of the trail than most of their colleagues. Indeed, they drove most of the way.
“The Department of Water and Power is real touchy about people coming in here to the dam,” said the leader, Norman Weissman of Encino, a 74-year-old retired biochemist taking part in his 30th annual bird count.
“They like us to get out by noon. So mostly we drive and stop every now and then and look for birds. Most other groups walk all day through their areas.”
A 3-mile road circles the reservoir, contained by an earth dam that closes off a canyon high in the Santa Monica Mountains. To the DWP, it’s a reservoir. To the owners of the expensive houses on the southwest bank, it’s Lake Encino, which sounds better if you paid $1 million for the view.
The hunt had two special objects: The hundreds of Canada geese that winter on the lake each year, and the great blue herons seen in previous years. The question was whether the herons had survived. As for the geese, everyone knew they sleep on the lake each night, but because they usually fly elsewhere to feed, it was unclear whether the watchers would actually see the goose flock, a spectacle that was the biggest attraction for many of them.
In seven cars, eight women and four men drove through the gate. A dozen deer grazing at the foot of the dam, accustomed to dam workers’ trucks, barely glanced up. “We have to keep the gate closed or they’d be down on Ventura Boulevard,” said M.D. Benson, a caretaker.
Atop the dam, everyone piled out and mounted telescopes on tripods.
“Heron,” someone cried.
“No, that’s a cormorant,” Weissman ruled. “A double-crested cormorant.”
And the geese had left.
The cars slowly circled the lake, stopping every quarter mile or so. The occupants scrambled out to scout with binoculars, small figures hunched against the bitter wind in a picturesque confluence of three universes. Above them rose miles of green, uninhabited mountain slopes. To one side shimmered the lake. The water’s surface hangs high above the Valley, which sprawls below as if seen from an airplane, crosshatched with city streets.
A tiny bird at the water’s edge generated much argument. Some scanned books while others watched through the scope.
“Does he have a yellow throat?”
“Could be a water pipit, but it says here they pump their tails.”
“He is, he’s pumping his tail.”
“Great. One water pipit. That should be a first for some of you.”
Still and all, it looked like the count was going to be far lower than usual, Weissman lamented, “the lowest I’ve seen in 18 years that I’ve been coming to this place.”
Some blamed the cold. “All the little guys are hunkered down in the brush keeping warm,” one woman commented. “Only the crazy bird watchers are out here freezing.”
After 3 hours the well-chilled group was almost ready to call it quits, when the high points came one after another. First, a squadron of geese appeared in militarily perfect V formation, honking raucously, and circled down to splash-landings, scattering small ducks.
“Brrrrrr,” somebody sympathized, as the rest cheered.
There was a flash across the water’s surface.
“A kingfisher!” gasped Harold Heifetz, a North Hollywood writer.
And perched on the water inlet tower was a great blue heron. “That’s him all right,” Weissman confirmed. “And there’s another one, right there behind him. They’re still here.”
Cookies and smiles all around.
Departing, the bird watchers asked the dam caretakers about a mystery: Are there fish in the reservoir for aquatic birds like the herons and kingfishers?
“There’s crayfish and frogs,” Benson said. “I personally have never seen a fish in the reservoir, but I’ve seen remains of fish in those herons’ nests. Can’t say where they caught them, of course.”
The watchers let it rest. The day had finally warmed up, and the count was done for another year--230 birds of 32 species.
“It’s a rite of passage,” Heifetz said. “It means the birds made it for one more year--and so did we.”