RECREATION / BIRD-WATCHING : Enthusiasm Soars as Migration Nears : Orange County Is the Perfect Place for Expert and Beginner Hobbyists to Roost


“Black tern in flight!”

Conversation broke abruptly and binoculars swept skyward. A small black-and-white bird darted above the flat waters of the Bolsa Chica wetlands, flying momentarily alongside a smaller California least tern before wheeling out of sight.

Bolsa Chica has hundreds of terns--Forster’s, least, elegant and Caspian--but this inconspicuous little anomaly instantly caught the eye of Doug Willick, who alerted his birding companions. The black tern is a northern species seen in these parts only a handful of times each year.

It’s the unusual sightings such as these that provide the spice for serious birders such as Willick. Word of rare and unusual sightings, birds that stray outside their usual range or Eastern migrants blown by storms off their normal routes, spread quickly among a tightknit group of local birders who will drop everything at a moment’s notice for the chance to add a new bird to their “life list” of bird sightings.


Despite continually creeping urbanization, Orange County is a birding hot spot--for beginners as well as for the experts. In the annual Christmas count sponsored by the National Audubon Society, Orange County usually ranks near the top, as much a tribute to the number of bird-watchers in the county as it is to the number of birds.

Now, these birders are gearing up for fall migration, the most active time of year. With the breeding season over, hundreds of thousands of birds are making their way to wintering grounds south.

Some just pass through, while others will make the county their final destination. Shore birds and waterfowl stop to refuel or stay the winter at the county’s wetlands areas, remnants of what was once a vast coastal salt marsh system, as well as inland lakes and waterways.

Land birds, meanwhile, are attracted to a number of parks and greenbelts, with Huntington Central Park in particular a locally renowned migrant “trap.” The tree-strewn patch of green proves an irresistible lure to a rich variety of migrating birds, including regular transients (birds passing through to points farther south), regular wintering birds and vagrants (the rarities that wander into Orange County for a variety of reasons).

Orange County, with a variety of habitats and a location under the Pacific Flyway, an overhead migration highway that stretches from the Arctic south to the tropical forests of South America, provides ample birding opportunities for both beginners and experts. And this is the best time to get started, as fall is the time of year with the most birds, both in numbers and variety.

Migrating shore birds have been arriving all through August. Land birds have started to trickle into the county and will hit their peak next month. Waterfowl, latecomers among the migrating birds, will just begin to arrive later next month. So for nature lovers, September is the time to head to the county’s wild places.

Getting Started

Most people ease into the hobby of bird-watching, says Sylvia Gallagher, bird information chairwoman for the local Sea and Sage chapter of the National Audubon Society. They start to wonder about the birds in their back yard or on their favorite walk, and pick up a field guide.

That’s the best way to start, Gallagher says: to let the hobby grow out of a natural interest in the immediate surroundings. But be warned, as this innocent curiosity can easily turn to obsession.

There are only two essential items of equipment for the beginner: a field guide and a set of binoculars. Before heading out into the field, browse through the guide. The introduction will give an overview of identification techniques and birding terminology. The body of the book is divided by family;familiarizing yourself with some of the characteristics of each family will cut down on search time and frustration in the field.

But the best way to learn, of course, is to get out and look at the birds. “There’s only so much you can get out of a field guide,” Willick says.

“Get out there with people who are better than you are,” adds Loren Hays, a biologist and a top local birder.

One of the easiest ways to learn from more experienced birders is to join a field trip. There are three local Audubon chapters, all of which offer regular field trips to locations in and out of the county. Birding walks are also offered by some local parks, including Upper Newport Bay and Bolsa Chica ecological reserves and Oak Canyon Nature Center in Anaheim Hills.

Taking a class is a good idea too. Bird identification classes are sometimes offered through the community colleges. Local Audubon chapters offer classes and other educational programs as well; probably the best is Gallagher’s birding skills workshop, which will be offered again starting in January.

Gallagher recommends combining group field trips with outings alone or with a friend of a similar skill level. “Then you develop confidence by going out on your own and learn mistakes that you’ve made by going out on the field trips,” she says.

Willick says the county’s wetlands areas, principally Upper Newport Bay and Bolsa Chica, can be the best place to learn birding techniques. Land birds, flitting elusively from tree to tree, can be frustrating for beginners, Willick says. On the mud flats of local salt marshes, “things are just sitting. It gives you time to look them up in your field guide.”

But Gallagher says that any neighborhood park or even the back yard can be a good place to start enjoying the hobby. “There are easy birds everywhere,” she says, “and there are hard birds everywhere.”

Getting Good

“The process of learning to identify birds is a real skill,” says Gallagher. “That’s what keeps people interested, the finer points of identification.”

Birding is more than matching a bird to its picture in a book. It can be like detective work, involving behavior, habitat and distribution. Recognizing songs and calls are a vital part of the game.

And sooner or later, every birder starts compiling a life list. Some birders keep a regional list as well as an overall list. Of 419 bird species recorded in Orange County (many of them rare or unusual sightings), Willick has seen 380 of them. Brian Daniels is catching up with 376 sightings in the county, while Hays has 371.

The three ran into each other at Bolsa Chica on Saturday, which led to some good-natured ribbing. Daniels was reminded of a missed opportunity to see a blue-winged warbler in the county, still missing from his list, while Willick was chided about the time in 1985 he missed the chance to add a white-eyed vireo to his list.

By the time Willick heard about the sighting, the bird could not be found again. He assumed it had left the area, but the day after he left on a desert birding trip the bird had reappeared and was seen for several days. “That one hurt,” Willick admits.