Watch the Birdie

“There is a kind of goofy stereotype of birdwatchers, that birders always have that funny hat and something like a fishing vest with all those pockets,” says biologist Tom Troy. “I don’t have one, but a lot of birdwatchers have fishing vests because you might have a little notebook of some kind with a pen or pencil, your guidebook, binoculars, lens-cleaning tissue — all these things loaded into your vest with all the pockets.”

Troy says most birders are of retirement age, “But there is a competitive group of younger birdwatchers who take this very seriously — they’re serious listers who travel long distances and spend a lot of money.” A “lister” is a birder who keeps track of every species observed.

Troy has seen an increase in women joining the ranks in the past few years. “Believe it or not, for women, birdwatching is the number-two favorite pastime, after walking,” says Troy. “Baby boomers are all becoming older and looking for things to do, but the main reason [the pastime is on the rise] is because it’s inexpensive — you can become a birdwatcher for $50 or less.” That would buy a pair of binoculars and a bird identification book. “You can’t learn to play golf or ski for $50.”

On Saturday, March 29, Troy will teach “Basic Birding” at the Buena Vista Lagoon Landing in Carlsbad. The lagoon — a 223-acre wetland located between Carlsbad and Oceanside — was made an official reserve in 1969, the “first ecological reserve in all of California,” says Troy.

Of the 19 lagoons between Los Angeles and the Mexican border, Buena Vista is the only freshwater lagoon. “The reason the Buena Vista Lagoon is freshwater is that in the 1970s they built a damn at the mouth where it would normally open into the ocean. They built that huge mall, the Plaza Camino Real. The wetlands are a natural sponge, a cushion that slows down water movement. So, when they built that plaza and the El Niño rains came, it was a mess. There was a lot of flooding and lots of erosion, so they built a dam.” The lagoon is popular among anglers, who can be seen standing on the “fishing bridge” to catch bass, catfish, and bluegills.

Among the bird species that rely on the wetland habitat is the light-footed clapper rail, which is on the endangered list. The clapper rail, Troy says, “is a little bird that is very secretive and hides around the cattail reeds probing for food. It has kind of a long beak and a little fat body. For the average person, it’s a little chicken-like bird. It’s one of the symbols of the lagoon because they’re found here and not anywhere else.”

The mascot of the Buena Vista Audubon Society is the ruddy duck. During this bird’s mating season (May to August), the male ruddy duck’s black bill turns an opaque sky blue. Breeding plumage can sometimes be confusing for beginning birders. “One time a bunch of volunteers for the Audubon Society were in the Nature Center folding newsletters, and in comes this lady in a jogging suit, and she is livid,” remembers Troy. “She said, ‘I can’t believe what they’ve done! Someone has captured a bunch of little ducks and painted their bills a bright blue color! I don’t get it! Who can I call about this?’ We were laughing and said, ‘It’s okay! This is breeding season — those are just male ruddy ducks trying to attract the female, and that’s just how they get.’ She laughed and said, ‘That’s really it? Well, you learn something every day.’”

One duck has recently begun surprising even longtime birders. Western grebes — diving ducks with sharp bills for spearing fish — are known to feed each other during breeding season. “But lately,” explains Troy, “we’ve had small flocks of western grebes going through elaborate mating behaviors — strengthening that pair bond — every month.” Perhaps the most exciting mating ritual to witness, says Troy, is that of the male hummingbird, which flies straight up, “way high in the sky,” quickly turns, and then “dive bombs — comes all the way down, almost to the ground — then back up again.”

Most beginning birders are attracted to vibrantly colored feathers. “There are few true colors,” Troy says of plumage. “Most colors are reflected light. If you have a cloudy day, everything looks drab. But we [once saw] a hummingbird a little ways away, and when he would turn his head in the sun, it would send off this flash of red like neon that was captivating, almost like a beam of light out in a dark ocean. These are what I call a crowd-stopper — a thing that interrupts binocular pep talk. You never know what nature’s going to throw your way.”

— Barbarella

Basic Birding class
Saturday, March 29
8:30 a.m.
Buena Vista Lagoon Landing (see website for directions)
Cost: Free
Info: 760-967-6915 or

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