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The Secret World of Birders

They walk among us, in plain sight. Their figures barely cause for a second look. Like us, they enjoy the feel of the sunshine on their skin and the gorgeous blue of the Los Angeles sky, but that is not all they go outdoors for. Birders are on a mission.

Most likely dressed in comfortable khaki shorts and sporting Captain Price-like boonie hats, birders congregate in nature preserves, parks, or just about any type of natural habitat in search of...well...birds. At the smallest sound of an unidentified warble, heads whirl in search of its source.

Ears perk, eyes squint to get a better look, hands finger the black binoculars that hang casually from their necks. Practice has given birders sharpened observation skills. As soon as they find their target, they take a few moments to enjoy it, and then the pens come out, jotting down one of their many finds for the day.

"The difference between a runner and a jogger is a race application," says Kris Ohlenkamp, Conservation Director for the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society. "If you've run a race, you're a runner. With birding, if you keep a list, you're a birder. Otherwise, you're a birdwatcher." Birdwatching may be a lazy day diversion, but birding is in a different league.

After a day of birding, avian enthusiasts would most likely log their finds onto the eBird database, an online checklist program launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in 2002. "You log in all your sightings on eBird and it keeps track of all the birds you see in the county, in the state, in the country. If you go overseas, you can add the birds you found in that country too. It can be competitive at times," says Ohlenkamp, whose smile indicates that's probably understating the case.

Surprisingly, birding is the country's number one sport, claims the National Audubon Society. "According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are currently 51.3 million birders in the United States alone," writes Audubon on its website. That's about 16 percent of the American population. Who knew early morning walks in nature could be so compelling?

EBird harnesses the power of this legion of naturalists by taking their lists and turning it into an on-ground system for tracking the country's biodiversity. In short, these birders are serving the cause of science, while giddily adding another species to their growing list of sightings.

Kris Ohlenkamp and Ann Ohlenkamp from SFV Audubon Society at the Sepulveda Basin

One can always tell when they're speaking with birders. Uncannily perceptive, honed by years of parsing bird from foliage, birders can momentarily divert a conversation by pointing out a bird that hasn't even registered on your radar. "I hear some parakeets right now," says Ohlenkamp while I peppered him with questions. "There, yellow-chevroned parakeets have established themselves."

I, of course, see nothing -- except for an overwhelming amount of foliage -- as we sit underneath a sycamore tree, embraced by 2,000-plus acres of greenery at the north entrance of the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Preserve.

Sometime later, while walking along the paths coming from the lake, Ohlenkamp stops. "I saw a shadow." He explains, then looks up, just in time to see the soaring silhouette of a turkey vulture, circling the tops of the trees beside us. "Turkey vultures are migrating right now so there's been a kettle of them over the golf course in the past couple of days." How he knew what it was from down below where we were mystifies me. I can only appreciate the graceful glide of that avian body.

Ohlenkamp is a fixture in Los Angeles birding circles. He leads a birdwalk every first Sunday of the month at Sepulveda Basin as part of his work for the San Fernando Audubon. (SFV Audubon leads about half a dozen walks on any given month.) Free of cost, the walk attracts beginners and old hands alike because of its great location.

"This place is so good because this is the largest green spot in the valley. Any bird that's passing through that's looking for a place to rest or eat or meet other birds, they're gonna come over here." Throughout the years, Ohlenkamp has seen about 280 species around the Basin, a natural sanctuary right in the middle of the city. In a year, one would typically see 150 types of birds in the area, which means there's a lot of rare sightings that stop by the habitat on any given year.

The four-hour walk starts at 8 a.m. to maximize the time when birds are most active. While the sun makes its way west, the birders leisurely walk from the basin, down to the Los Angeles River and back, covering only about two miles.

A typical birdwalk can yield sightings of 60 species of birds: ospreys, fish-eating eagles that dive into the lake; belted kingfishers, uniquely-shaped fish-eating birds; orioles; tanagers; and all kinds of hummingbirds. "We've also had half a dozen state rarities that have brought people into the basin. It brings a lot of tourists as well."

How do these "tourists" know to go?

Through its dedicated network of birders, of course. "We talk to each other," says Ohlenkamp. "Somebody finds one, they post it on the Yahoo Group for L.A. County Birds, everybody will come out looking for it. There's a state Calbirds Yahoo Group too." Birding is a world within this world, it seems, both competitive yet also collegial. At the smallest urging, I have no doubt birders could easily be coaxed to show you his lists and share whatever knowledge he has thus far garnered.

Red-tailed Hawk carrying an American Coot

Intimidating as these naturalists are, Ohlenkamp's presence dispels any thought of exclusivity in this hidden club. A Valley-ite since the 1950s, Ohlenkamp himself didn't start out as a bird lover, but just a person who loves nature. Only when he was assigned to the SFV Audubon's annual Christmas bird count event where volunteers do a census of birds within a 10-mile radius, did Ohlenkamp get his first taste of birding.

"I went up with a group to Encino Reservoir," recounts Ohlenkamp, "It was a cold and windy day. We only saw 25-30 species of birds, but I'll always remember seeing a killdeer in the spotting scope against the background of the lake with the wind blowing its feathers. I realized that even though I lived my whole life in the Valley, there were things that I never seen before, so I bought a bird book and pair of binoculars and started going out. I'm still doing it to this day."

It's not hard to fall in love with birds, says Ohlenkamp. "You see these things and you realize how beautiful they are. It motivates you." Flighty and free to roam, birds dazzle with their plumage, but also for the little things that make them alien to us: strange eye colors, little tongues that peek out whenever they open their beaks.

When you love birds, it's also easy to love nature and want to protect it. It's a good kind of slippery slope that has the SFV Audubon running educational programs in the Sepulveda Basin for nearly 2,000 kids from low-income urban families, reaching out to college-age conservationists, and cleaning out the muck that runs into Haskell Creek every year.

But don't be pressured, says Ohlenkamp. If you're interested, the best way to get started is just to get out. "I didn't know what's here until I got out. You gotta get out on a birdwalk and see what's here. The more you're out here doing this, the better your powers of observation become. You start seeing things and hearing things and noticing things that you've never noticed before." In the end, that's what a good life is about anyway, the ability to appreciate all the little things and squeeze out every moment for all it's worth."

The SFV Audubon offers free walks for families, beginners and old-pros all around the Los Angeles County. Check out their newsletter for details. The society also put together the guide "Birds of Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area", should you want to do your own amateur birding. Find a good birding spot near you, check here.

Great Egret

American Coots at Sepulveda Dam

Great-tailed Grackle

American White Pelicans, with Great Blue Heron at right

Great Blue Heron

Osprey flying over Double-crested Cormorants

Top: American White Pelican.

Photographs from Sepulveda Basin © 2012 Mathew Tekulsky

About the Author

Carren is an art, architecture and design writer and an avid explorer of Los Angeles. Her work has been spotted on Core77, Dwell, Surface Asia, and Fast Co.Design. You can find her online and on Twitter. 
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