It was 1968 when Sylvia Gallagher’s interest in birds was first piqued.
“My mother was feeding the birds in her Santa Ana backyard and she didn’t know what any of them were,” said Gallagher, a Huntington Beach resident who was living in La Cañada at the time.
Gallagher, a chemist who was working on her doctorate — and who later became a college chemistry teacher — diverted her attention from the laboratory, where she was spending much of her time, and began her bird research.
It never ended.
“Birds took over my life,” Gallagher said.
Nearly 50 years later, Gallagher’s passion for birds hasn’t waned.
As a board member of the Sea & Sage Audubon Society, an Orange County Chapter of the National Audubon Society, she teaches classes regularly through the chapter on bird sounds, bird identification and other related workshops.
A quiet, meditative hobby for some and more of a competitive sport for others, birdwatching, or birding, has an active community of enthusiasts in Orange County.
Amid the hustle and bustle of modern urban life, these birders stop, wait, watch and often photograph the diverse species of birds — from hawks and shorebirds to everything in between — that call the county their home.
“Orange County is one of the best birding areas in the United States,” said Victor Leipzig, past president of the Sea & Sage Audubon Society, who teaches a “Birds of the World” class at Saddleback College. “We have a combination of different habitats. We have a coastline — and there’s a large number of species whose favorite habitats are coastal areas.”
Leipzig, of Huntington Beach, said coastal sage scrub is one particularly popular plant community for birds in Orange County.
“We have a mild climate that brings birds to us in the winter to escape the cold of the tundra,” Leipzig said.
There are 10,000 bird species on the planet, and Orange County hosts well over 400 of those, said Leipzig.
In addition to serving as a relaxing hobby, or a competitive activity — through comparing bird counts and lists with fellow birders — birdwatching also serves a scientific purpose.
“Birding can contribute to the understanding of our natural world,” Leipzig said, adding that the Audubon Society encourages public engagement about which birds individuals see in their areas. “That information is very heavily used by researchers to help understand the comings and goings of different bird species.”
Leipzig said one of the best ways to submit birding information is through eBird.org, a joint effort between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.
“Orange County is blessed to have an enthusiastic community of birders and bird interest folks,” Leipzig said, noting that the Sea & Sage chapter has about 3,500 members. “To one extent or another that community is also a community of conservationists.”
Birding docent Diane Etchison of San Clemente, who leads birding events through Irvine Ranch Conservancy, said becoming a birdwatcher is as simple as buying a good bird book and a pair of binoculars — a camera might be helpful, too.
“Other than that it’s a matter of gaining experience,” she said. “You can look out into your backyard and look at birds.”
As the hobby evolves, she also recommends taking a class like those taught by Leipzig and Gallagher to learn how to identify birds by sight and sound.
While there are plenty of local species to learn about, there also are rare bird sightings frequently reported in the area.
“Spring is the bird-iest time of year because birds are migrating through,” Etchison said.
Just recently, a Nazca booby — which breeds in the Galapagos Islands — made an appearance in Dana Point.
Etchison said it looked a bit like a white pelican.
When rare sightings happen, a network of Orange County birders is alerted by email and phone, and many of them head out with binoculars in hand to see for themselves.
“There are a lot of really expert birders in the area that have been birding all their life,” Etchison said.
Jessica Peralta is a contributor to Times Community News.