A Report by John Garrett
After the excitement of last year’s Young Birders’ Conference (YBC) in Minot, North Dakota, I was eager to attend the 2009 YBC in San Diego. Even though it was centered only two counties away from my home in Los Angeles County, I knew from experience that these conferences are a great opportunity to learn more about birds and make new geeky pals.
On Sunday, June 21st, I met up with my friend and fellow teen birder Neil Gilbert of Orange County, California, and we headed south to the University of San Diego, where the conference took place. A junior division of the Navy was using the university as a base as well and we learned that their early morning screeching of orders worked efficiently as an alarm clock. Young birders came from just about every part of the United States, five of us from
After meeting each other on Sunday, we awoke early on Monday morning to bird the Tijuana Slough (pronounced ‘Tee-wanna Slew’) and the Dairy Mart Ponds (pronounced ‘the Dairy Mart Ponds’). Most newcomers to the state excitedly found lifebirds at about every stop, while Neil and I quietly (or sometimes not-so-quietly) chuckled as they jumped up and down over such ‘boring’ species as Heermann’s Gulls, Red-crowned Parrots, and California Towhees. We made it a tradition to playfully punch the arm of those who saw lifers. For most nights, conference-master Steve Carbol prepared for us jeopardy-style bird-trivia games. Splitting up into teams, we had to answer bird-related questions in such categories as shorebird, sparrow, and warbler identification, state birds, BACO (band codes), scientific names, bird nicknames, Old World vs. New World names, and more. We won various field guides (including many from Southeast Asia and signed Kaufmann Focus Guides), ABA Checklists, and bird-designed tote bags for prizes. The trivia games were a great way for us to practice our birding skills and unleash our competitive sides. After trivia, many of us stayed up late to go owling. In the belfry on campus were four Barn Owls and Common Poorwills occupied a nearby canyon.
Our voyage to Santa Cruz Island (pronounced ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’) proved to be our longest trip. We awoke before the Navy and arrived before 7:30 a.m. at the Ventura Harbor. Once on our catamaran, which we shared with numerous muggles (non-birders), we soon learned that the boat would stop for attractive marine mammals, but never for birds. Nonetheless, we received spectacular views of seabirds: Sooty Shearwaters, Pink-footed Shearwaters, Pigeon Guillemots and Xantus’s Murrelets. Something all-whitish floating on the water turned out to be not a grocery bag, but a very pale Northern Fulmar – an uncommon bird in late June and by far the whitest fulmar I’ve seen in the Pacific. Common dolphins rode the bow and California sea lions rested on buoys. At one point, I saw a tall, columnar blow of water vapor in the distance – a blue whale! As the catamaran neared where the whale spout was seen, a blue whale rolled near the boat. Muggles and birders alike enjoyed watching these giants. We continued to our destination of Prisoner’s Cove at Santa Cruz Island.
Once on the island, we received terrific views of the endemic Island Scrub-jay. Perhaps not many non-Californians know that the Channel Islands and nearby mainland are home to many endemic bird subspecies, and we observed endemic subspecies of Allen’s Hummingbirds, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Hutton’s Vireos, and more. Many non-bird endemics are present here too, including the island gray fox and several moths and butterflies. It was interesting to note how smaller organisms, such as mice, lizards, and the Island Scrub-Jay itself, have become larger than similar mainland populations. These organisms have less competition on the island, more food for themselves, and fewer predators. Conversely, the few large predators that do exist on the island have become smaller than their counterpart mainland populations because there are fewer predators and more relative competition.
On the return back from the island, we glimpsed Cassin’s Auklets and a Common Murre. The murre and the fulmar were perhaps locally the rarest birds yet, although the other kids were probably thinking too much about their hoards of other lifers to consider this much. On the drive back, Neil decided that we should stop by his house, as many of us desperately needed a bathroom break. After passing several gas stations, we were within half a mile of his house. Unfortunately, Steve recognized the foolishness of this plan, and we turned around and went to a gas station.
The next day was much more relaxed: our main destination was the San Diego Zoo! While not a lister’s paradise, it provided excellent opportunities for us to see exotic birds we’d otherwise have to travel extremely far distances to observe in their native ranges. The San Diego Zoo owns one of the best avian collections in the world. A Laughing Kookaburra, a Great Horned Owl, an African Pygmy-Falcon, and a pair of Galahs, members of the cockatoo family, were presented to us so for up close sketching. Dave Rimlinger, curator for the bird collections at the San Diego Zoo, spoke to us and gave helpful advice on what a young bird enthusiast could do for a career. After that, we were left to explore whatever parts of the zoo we wished, but we mostly stuck around the birds. My favorite area was the raptor collection: we saw Ornate Hawk-Eagle, Andean Condor, Steller’s Sea-Eagle, and a couple of Harpy Eagles. The various tropical aviaries were also a paradise and I enjoyed sketching the unfamiliar bird shapes of turacos, pittas, Hammerkops, hornbills, and Old World storks. Andrew Guttenberg, who very well could be the next David Allen Sibley, finally had the opportunity to see a Sparkling Violet-ear, a bird he’s drawn at least ten times but never actually seen in life. It was the only day in which nobody was punched in the arm, and yet the day in which everybody saw the most ‘lifebirds’.
Our trip to the Salton Sea was the second-longest after the pelagic, and the only day I saw a lifebird. Although not as blisteringly hot as I thought it would be, it was still pretty warm, and, instead of walking, we swam through the flies (it was preferable to swimming through the sea, which is composed of salt, various toxic chemicals, fish guts, Yellow-footed Gulls, and some water). Fortunately, although thick, the flies did not bite. Lesser Nighthawks were perhaps the most common bird at the Wister Unit. Tyler spotted a Bronzed Cowbird – a state bird for me. Bronzed wasn’t the only cowbird species there; we observed a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher feeding a fledgling Brown-headed Cowbird. Continuing on, we saw a Wood Stork flying by – surprisingly, the only rightful punch in the arm I received the whole week. We only spent a few hours admiring the various gulls, terns, and shorebirds that make the sea worth going to in mid-summer, including many Yellow-footed and Laughing Gulls. However, we didn’t stay long, and after seeing some disgustingly worn Greater White-fronted and Cackling Geese at a little pocket park, we went back to the University.
On our final day, we explored the Laguna Mountains. Black-chinned and Black-throated Sparrows sang and even showed themselves from the hillsides, and the Californians again tried not to laugh (or not) as easterners gawked at Steller’s Jays and Lazuli Buntings.
While neither as structured nor as personally life-bird-achieving as the last YBC, this year’s conference was one of the most fun, educational experiences of my life. Wherever the next one may be (there are rumors it’s in Colorado), I sure hope I can attend.