What is one of your favorite bird families or species and why?
Gulls, shorebirds, and warblers are wonderful, but I believe that sparrows just do not get the praise that they deserve. Perhaps it is due to their small size, secretive behavior, and cryptic coloration, but I find their range of vocalizations and plumage patterns to be fascinating.
I remember finding my lifer Black-throated Sparrow in the Anza-Borrego Desert of California perched on top of an agave stalk after following an unfamiliar series of clear, bell-like trills. I was mesmerized with how this bird was alternating between two different song types. The pause between the first and second song type was getting shorter as the bird continued singing, and eventually the first seamlessly flowed into the second. This experience still has me wondering what the evolutionary history of this adaptation has been and what purpose it serves. This song and the striking plumage of this bird instantly became a memorable symbol of the southwestern desert for me.
What is one of your favorite birding locations?
I live just a few blocks away from the San Diego River mouth, and this was a deciding factor on where I chose to live. Any time of day, I can take a walk here to study gulls, shorebirds, waders, waterfowl, sparrows, and raptors. I find it very important to have a birding location such as this close to my home. If I cannot easily walk to a spot like this, chances are that I may not get out birding every day.
I love the fact that I can seawatch from the jetties while watching shearwaters, loons, coastal gulls and rocky shorebirds and then walk inland to see mudflats filled with gulls, terns, and tidal shorebirds. A little further in, numerous waders and waterfowl become abundant, and then the species composition changes as I come upon Light-footed Clapper Rails sneaking around the saltmarsh. If I feel like riding my bike even further inland, it is easy to quickly come upon good habitat for sparrows and buntings and then a marsh bird and migrant trap corridor as the river becomes surrounded by development. Seasonal (especially wintering) rarities can be found anywhere along this entire stretch, from the river mouth to downtown, and many local specialties such as Reddish Egret, Little Blue Heron, and Snowy Plover, are resident.
Can you describe the experience or "spark" bird that first got you hooked on birding?
An Ornithology course taken during my last semester of college is responsible for my current addiction. My classmates and I were intimidated by this course since we had to learn the visual identification and the songs of the southeastern birds, but I was pleasantly surprised when learning the songs came very easily to me. At the time, I did not know exactly what I was doing, but I started creating my own rough spectrographs of these vocalizations to help my learning. This exercise of transforming auditory data into a visual format was my key to learning bird vocalizations.
Of course, pneumonic phrases were also a huge help and kept things entertaining! The first time that I heard the song of the Hooded Warbler, it sounded like a moody teenager snottily saying “I don’t want to play with you!” I wore a “hoodie”, or sweatshirt, often as a teenager and pulled the hood over my head when I was in a bad mood, so the visual image of the black hood covering the yellow face of the bird was fitting. I admitted my silly memorization technique to my classmates, and, years later, I discovered that my Ornithology teacher was teaching it to her students!
Describe any exciting projects or programs in which you've been involved?
It was a very eye-opening experience to have surveyed for the endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) along the Lower Colorado River in 2012. The flycatcher has not been documented breeding along this stretch of the river (from Yuma, AZ to Blythe, CA) in 60 years, but they still migrate through the area, along with two other races, on their way to northern breeding grounds. Although other races of the Willow Flycatcher appear to have stable populations, the southwestern race is federally endangered due to loss of habitat resulting from the damming of southwestern waterways.
This the first time that I had worked in the West, and it was the first time I had encountered an environmental quandary of this complexity. Along with the social complexities involved, there is a quandary in regards to an invasive-exotic tree, Tamarisk. This tree chokes out the southwestern waterways, displacing native vegetation, but many birds, including the Willow Flycatcher and other listed species, now depend on the Tamarisk for breeding substrate. Also, even if the dams were removed, this would deplete agricultural habitat which has become globally important wintering habitat for shorebirds.
There simply is no easy answer to these problems, and the multi-faceted management practices in use are incredibly complex. One bright side of these management practices has been the creation of irrigated restoration sites (tree plantations) which have done a wonderful job of attracting migrants and increasing the numbers of listed species. The western race of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo seems to be doing very well in these sites, and many “eastern” vagrants show up in them periodically. I found a Hooded Warbler, two Northern Parulas, and numerous Indigo Buntings at one site in 2010, and a Northern Waterthrush was just found in another last week. Hopefully more nice birds will be attracted to these sites as they continue to grow and mature.
What do you believe is currently one of the most important avian conservation issues?
I find that few people are willing to acknowledge the issue of domestic cats and their impact on bird mortality. During my college Ornithology course, I was shocked to discover how domestic cats simply towered over all other factors as a cause of bird mortality. Hunters and windows are the second and third leading causes, and they each only account for one tenth of those deaths caused by cats. Additionally, the majority of species that are preyed upon happen to be weak, neotropical migrants.
Many folks seem to be aware of habitat loss, and are willing to make huge efforts to save crucial areas, but the emotional and cultural ties to household pets seem to have us paralyzed to solving an easy and inexpensive problem. Perhaps if we are able to get more of our society interested in birding, they might have an equivalent emotional attachment to the welfare of our wildlife. I have written informational pamphlets for the Humane Society, illustrating the benefits, for both cats and the environment, of keeping cats indoors.
What is a fun fact about yourself that many people may not know?
I once took a week-long vow of silence while on tour with my band in college. I had wanted to take a vow of silence for a long time, and I figured that this would be the only time that I could possibly do such, given that I had no absolute commitment to speaking during the tour. It was hilarious!
I really felt like I was losing my mind over the last few days, but somehow I did make it through successfully. My band mates and tour companions thought it was really odd when I started speaking again, and it was like an extra person had jumped in the van. In retrospect, it may not have been the most emotionally productive scenario in which to take such a vow, but it sure did make for some incredible stories!