I went for a walk along Ocean Beach today. The sun was shining, the surf was sparkling and it was a truly glorious day. I normally take the mile and a half walk down to the beach through Golden Gate Park, however, today I had to return some DVDs to the library and so I ended up about a mile farther south than usual when I arrived at the ocean.
I had just come over the crest of a dune when I spotted my one of my favorite birds - the Western Sandpiper. There were a couple of flocks of sandpipers of about a dozen each, following the waves in and out looking for a noon time meal of invertebrates in the wet sand. I am not an avid birder, but I do enjoy knowing what bird Im observing and learning what I can about its Natural History. The Western Sandpiper is a pretty little shore bird that stands about four inches high, with a white chin and breast and beautiful light brown mottling on its back. When running along the beach, one can see a jet black point on its tail and when it takes off for a short flight, its possible to observe its wings of brown with a white strip running down the middle and the back edge trimmed in black. As they feed along the beach chasing the receding waves, their heads bob up and down like little sewing machines.
Occasionally, youll hear a little peep from the Western Sandpiper, and, in fact, all of the little shorebirds are called Peeps by birders. There are many types of peeps that are quite similar and they can be difficult to differentiate even with binoculars, but my Peterson Guide to Western Birds has a great tip about identifying the Western Sandpiper - they look like little windup toys running along the beach. And thats how I could identify them so quickly from 50 or 60 yards away. I followed several flocks of Sandpipers along the beach as I worked my way north towards the Park. These birds are not shy and today I was able to get within 6 or 7 feet of a couple of them. The distance that a wild bird will allow a human to approach is called the flight distance and these birds have one of the shortest that I have seen. One bird even stood for a minute regarding me carefully - it was really cool to see this beautiful bird up close and still for a minute.
I saw another shore bird from time to time as I walked along the beach, always solitary and a bit larger then the Sandpiper, but I did not bring my field guide with me, so I noted its markings and looked it up in my Sibley Guide to Birds when I got home. I had thought when I saw it that it might be a Dunlin but it turned out to be a Willet. With more birding experience, I would have known that upon sighting it (Willets are almost always solitary and Dunlins are usually in flocks). Hopefully, next time I see the Willet, Ill remember that little fact, but it just points out the value of the hint I gleaned from the Peterson guide about Sandpipers resembling wind up toys.
I once read a book called the Compleate Birder where I learned about GISS (general impression shape and size). When youre starting out learning how to identify birds (or anything else in Nature), this is a great tool to use. Alan Hopkins, one of San Franciscos most experienced birders, advises beginning birders to first just observe the bird without binoculars. Watch it move around and observe it in its habitat before you use the binoculars to look for markings to nail down the identification. This is observing the GISS of the bird and is a great help when identifying birds, especially from a distance. Turkey Vultures are really easy to spot because they have a very large wing span and as they glide along in the sky, they rock from side to side. Its a very distinctive movement that is easily spotted even at a great distance.
As I walked back through the Park, I spotted a Great Egret perched on a log. It spread its wings at one point and I noticed really feathery plumage similar to the Snowy Egret, however, it was too large to be a Snowy and it had a yellow bill. Theres a simple trick to quickly determine if youre observing a Snowy Egret or a Great Egret. The Great Egret has a yellow bill and black feet and the Snowy Egret has a black bill and yellow feet and is nicknamed Golden Slippers.
Farther along I heard the little aria of the House Finch and the repeated cries of the Red-Shouldered Hawk. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were walking in the Park in the rain and we were able to get within 20 feet of a Red-Shouldered Hawk. I was surprised we were able to get so close, but I concluded it was probably a juvenile that hadnt yet developed the fear of humans. I recall its beautiful yellow, sharply-curved beak, the delicate mottling of reddish brown and white on its breast and the beautiful black and white stripes on its tail.
I am really fortunate to live near the Park and the beach and to be able to observe such diverse wildlife on a short walk. The walk along the beach was really relaxing as I listened to the sounds of the surf and enjoyed the reflections of the distant clouds in the wet sand left by the receding waves. As I walked through the park, I enjoyed the scents of the various Eucalyptus trees and the Coast Redwoods and the songs and calls of the various birds. Walking has become my favorite exercise - the rhythm of walking puts me in a great frame of mind and the sights and sounds of Nature make me feel whole and connected with the world.
A Drop of Water