It's not unusual for 17-year-old Daniel Cooper to wake up at 4 a.m., tiptoe quietly out of his house and into his van, then pull slowly away from the front curb.
Most parents would squawk that such behavior is for the birds. Cooper's know it's for the bird-watching.
"He's been interested in birds since he was about 5 years old," said Daniel's mother, Lily Cooper. "Before he knew how to drive, his dad and I would take him on these bird walks and he would be the only one there who wasn't an adult. In fact, there weren't even any teen-agers."
Today, Cooper contributes a regular column on bird-watching, or birding, as it is called, to a monthly newsletter published by the Friends of the Los Angeles River, a conservation group. And recently, the San Marino High School senior completed his "Beginners' Bird Guide to San Marino and Vicinity."
Cooper wrote and illustrated the 27-page booklet, which features pen-and-ink drawings of about 50 of the most common species in the area. The guide describes, among other things, each bird's markings, the sound it makes, its habitat and its migratory patterns.
Cooper said he embarked on the project after leading bird walks for the Los Angeles and Pasadena Audubon societies, as well as for the Huntington Library Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
"A lot of the people who go out on the tours are really interested in birds, but they don't know a lot about them," Cooper said.
Cooper's booklet, which was put together with the assistance of the Huntington Library, is sold at the library's bookstore, as well as at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center and the El Molino Viejo, which is run by the San Marino Historical Society. He also plans to sell the guides while leading bird walks around the area.
"That's where the market is," he said, rolling his eyes. "If you can even call it that."
Although Cooper spends many Saturdays at local parks and other areas where common birds can be found, the real thrill for him is spotting rare ones.
In pursuit of such birds as the blue-footed booby, the yellow-bellied flycatcher and the black-billed cuckoo, Cooper has ventured on daylong and overnight expeditions to desert oases in the state such as the Morongo Valley and Mojave Narrows Regional Park. He also has traveled to coastal communities such as Newport Back Bay, Central Park in Huntington Beach and Point Loma in San Diego.
Once while he was in Deep Springs, in Mono County about 300 miles north of Los Angeles, he and a birding companion spotted a rare eastern phoebe. When they returned and reported their sighting, they were met with skepticism.
"We told these guys who are well known Los Angeles County birders, but because it's a rare bird they didn't believe us," he said with a shrug. "Sometimes people don't take me seriously because of my age."
Indeed, when he was as young as 10, Cooper's parents indulged his interest in birding and accompanied him on organized tours and walks.
"When I used to go out with my dad, people thought he was the birder and that I was just a kid who didn't know anything," Cooper recalled. "But really it was the other way around."
Now that he is older and doesn't have to take his parents along, Cooper's hobby has really taken off. Knowing about birds has meant learning about Southern California's natural habitats.
"There are certain birds you can't find unless you can recognize a red fir or a lodgepole pine," he said, referring to the types of trees where certain birds forage. "You can't be into birding without knowing about ecology, nature and the seasons."
He has even learned a bit about development and politics. "Suddenly it's not an issue you read about in the paper," Cooper said. "When you see barren land and a bulldozer where a row of Joshua trees used to be, you get involved on a personal level."