Kimball L. Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, allows a child to take a peek through his scope focused on a rare bird in the San Gabriel River. Garrett led the bird walk last month in association with the Duarte Historical Society Museum. (SGVN/Staff photo by Steve Scauzillo)
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SEEING the least bell’s vireo on a recent birding hike adds an endangered species to my bird life list. It’s a feather in any birder’s cap to see a rare bird, or more so, an endangered bird. Figuratively speaking, of course.
When I heard that Kimball Garrett, the ornithologist with the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, was leading the walk on Earth Day last month, I jumped at the chance. And when I heard he was searching for the endangered bird in the scrub and arundo of the natural courses of the San Gabriel River, I set my alarm to be there.
Believe me, getting up at 7 a.m. on a Sunday is worth it if it meant moving a bird from one’s wish list (a bucket list of birds you really want to see) to one’s life list (species you’ve seen, along with the date and the place).
If it wasn’t endangered, you might not really look for it, said Garrett, whose down-to-earth demeanor perfectly complements his tremendous bird knowledge. Garrett’s book “Birds of the Los Angeles Region,” is a good example. It’s straight forward, easy to use and complete – like him. Plus, I like the focus on local birds. It narrows things down for us beginning birder types.
There is nothing worse than a docent talking about birds not in the hike. Like the time I visited the Bolsa Chica in Huntington Beach and the friendly guide went on a 10-minute tangent about snowy owls.
On that gray Sunday morning in Duarte, Garrett spoke with equal enthusiasm about the vireo as he did the yellow warbler perched in the tree at the edge of Encanto Park. He’s no bird snob. He’s a guy who gets phone calls from people throughout the county asking what they should do about squawking wild parrots.
“Close your windows?” he relayed to the group, cracking a Mona Lisa smile.
When my wife asked him about the cooper’s hawk that began stalking the house finches and white-crowned sparrows hovering around our backyard bird feeder, Garrett deadpanned: “You might want to stop feeding them.”
It’s that kind of practical, been-there advice that punctuated the bird hike and made it so enjoyable. That, and seeing birds I’ve never seen, including the yellow-breasted chat, what I suspected was a favorite of Garrett’s.
A couple weeks later, I was sitting at a picnic table in Lareo Park, staring into the river. I saw a crow dogging a hawk and thought of Garrett. And as I stared into the misty mountainside, I remembered the least bell’s vireo I had seen a few weeks earlier.
I couldn’t shake the thought of that tiny, gray bird, vulnerable, ready to disappear from the streams of California forever. I no longer felt so happy about seeing it.
The whole idea of endangered species bothers me. The idea that animals are here one day, gone the next. And that we don’t even know it is happening, and often, don’t care.
The whole bittersweet experience caused my mind to wander about what it means to be extinct. One of your kind is around no more, not even after you’re gone. No legacy. Just gone.
It really takes knowledge to see the invisible world of birds. And knowledge is helping those that are endangered, including the least bell’s vireo.
Dan Guthrie, biology professor emeritus at Claremont McKenna College, said efforts to bring back the gray bird have raised its numbers from a few hundred in the `70s to a couple thousand today.
“They have recovered pretty well,” Guthrie said.
Turns out, the cowbirds were laying eggs in its nest. The more dominant bird would kick out the vireo chicks and the vireo adults would feed the cowbird chicks instead. Sort of like kidnapping.
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife program traps and yes, kills cowbirds so the vireos can thrive. They are making a comeback in Prado Basin near Chino and along the Santa Clara River. And I’m happy to report, here, in the San Gabriel River.
You may not see it. And neither may I again. But knowing its been given a new chance at life satisfies something deep in my soul.
Steve Scauzillo covers the environment and the communities along the Puente Hills. He’s the current recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing from The Wilderness Society. Follow him on Twitter @stevscaz/twitter.com or email him at email@example.com