So while I was in San Diego, every morning, the incomparable Reece got up at 6 am and took me birding. (Except for the last day, when I had to sleep until nine or drop dead.)
Dude. San Diego birds. Daaaaamn.
To give you an idea of how many birds I spotted, my lifelist increased by a third.
We went to Lake Murray and Mission Bay, two parks. Lake Murray’s a fairly standard freshwater lake, attached to a water treatment plant. For some reason, the Mecca of birding always seems to be a sewage treatment lagoon. I assume it attracts bugs or something.
I am still trying to figure out some of the Lake Murray spottings–Reece kindly ordered me a “Birds of San Diego” book, which helped immensely, but some were tough, and some I’ll probably never figure out. Still, black phoebes, Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds, California towhees, bushtits, something I dismissed as a Carolina wren until it occurred to me that they didn’t HAVE Carolina wrens out here, making it a likely Bewick’s wren, cinnamon teals, mute swans…it was pretty cool.
Well, I thought it was cool until I went to Mission Bay, and then my brain near exploded.
Mission Bay is a sort of estuary where a small river runs into the ocean, creating the usual array of tidal mud flats. Great egrets and snowy egrets stomp around the river, next to willets and a few other things. The river’s not bad. The real glory is the mudflats, though, which can only be reached by wading through a knee deep channel of brackish water.
So I rolled up my pantlegs–my last pair of pants–and waded out. Along the way, I kicked a rock, ripping part of my big toenail off. I don’t think I would have noticed if the whole toe went with it.
The place was crazy with birds. Shorebirds, which are all a kind of vague mottled brown with various differing bits, and names like “short-billed dowitchers” and “semipalmated plover.” I limped around the mudflat taking notes and gibbering. Towards the end, mostly gibbering.
The problem is that while even an idiot like me can usually figure out what’s a whimbrel and what’s a willet, not many birders are terribly good at the little tiny shorebirds. They’re called “peeps” as a general description. Is that a snowy plover or a semipalmated? A juvenile black-bellied plover or a western sandpiper or something else entirely? The horror! You have to know exactly what to look for, and have experience with the different kinds, to be able to pick ’em out. I had no hope in hell. And the terns! They’re a whole class of grey birds with white faces and black berets. The distinctions are all in size and beak structure. I am an amateur, I understand colors best. Terns are hard.
So I slogged out of the mudflat, delighted with the birds I had seen, but knowing I hadn’t been able to figure out most of them.
Then I discovered that the tide had come in.
Ah. Yes. Tides do that, don’t they?
Well, no help for it. I rolled my pants up as high as pants go, and flung myself once more into the breach. The first steps were fine, the second were okay, the third doable. I could make it! The rocks were in sight! My shoes were not yet underwater! I could–just about–reach–
Sofawolf was very nice about not mentioning that my pants smelled like an estuary for the rest of the day. They’re birders, they understand these things.
Soggy, limping, but unbowed, I was taking a last look at the birds–least tern? forester’s tern? elegant tern? God, how do you tell!? when a voice said “What are you looking at?”
“Honestly, I have no idea,” I said, turning. “I’m from North Carolina, I don’t even know where to begin on some of these.”
The voice belonged to a curmudgeon. He was curmudgeonly. He was craggy and white haired and had skin like old leather. He saw my bird book and made a curmudgeonly sound of disbelief, and my binoculars were beneath contempt. I was obviously an idiot, and an idiot from the wrong coast. But I was a fellow birder, and despite being a young whippersnapper, there is a bond one extends to even the most feckless of birders. We are all birders in this together.
He told me to wait, stumped off to his car, and returned with a telescope the size of a howitzer.
And then, with remarkable patience, this wonderful curmudgeon went through every single species on the mudflat, peeps and terns and everything else, and walked me through the identification on the easy ones. The peeps, he ID’d, finding a specimen of each in the telescope for me.
So thanks to this nice man, I have seen (and recognized!) short-billed and long-billed dowitchers, semipalmated and snowy plovers (that last is a coup), four kinds of tern, marbled godwits and long-billed curlews, black-bellied plovers and western sandpipers.
It would have been a good trip overall, but that made the whole thing. I thanked him until I got hoarse, and staggered off to the Con, my brain a whirl of terns and peeps, my pants emitting a vague odor of dead fish, my toe throbbing, happy as a clam.
I’m sure he doesn’t read my blog, but thank you, curmudgeon, wherever you are! May many rare birds wing your way, and pause long enough to be identifiable.