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Picnic and Birding Along the River on Bird L.A. Day

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Birds on the L.A. River | Photo: Justin Cram/KCET Departures

Los Angeles is a happening place, for struggling actors, emerging artists -- and also for amazing avians. This May, the county's many conservationist groups are banding together to open resident eyes to the beauty of birds just in their backyards.

"We've always been aware that L.A. is a pretty amazing place for birds," says Garrison Frost of Audubon California. "The amazing diversity of habitat here -- beaches, mountains, deserts, woodlands, forests -- attract a ton of birds to this area."

The numbers bear out Frost's assertion. More than 520 bird species have been spotted in Los Angeles County, with more than 300 of those sightings reported this year. Not only do birds abound, so do birders. The county always blows the competition away in bird national counts. During the Great Backyard Bird Count, local bird enthusiasts submitted 816 checklists, which identified 258 different species. "No other county in the country was even close," says Frost, who points out that the county has nine strong Audubon chapters in the area, which should give Angelenos an idea of how strong the birding interest is.

This latent interest is what conservationist groups are hoping to harness in the name of the ecosystem. "Birds are at the center of so many environmental challenges--and that enthusiasm for birds can be a real force for change," says Frost. Because birds are so visible, environmental clues can often be seen by studying their movements and patterns, just like the canaries in the coal mine.

This Saturday, May 2, Bird L.A. Day will host a series of free de-centralized events held from the Eastside to the Westside, Venice to La Puente, from downtown to Long Beach. "We've set it up so that each organization is really in charge of their own events, and that they're all loosely tied together under a single theme," says Frost. "We intentionally didn't want too much structure. We wanted this to be organic, to just go where it was going to go."

Participating organizations include familiar names such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Audubon California, Aquarium of the Pacific, and the Theodore Payne Society, but also some perhaps less familiar names such as The G2 Gallery, Loyola Marymount University Center for Urban Resilience, and the Occidental College Moore Lab of Zoology.

Events range from serious sessions geared toward advanced birders, to fun activities for families such as pop-up picnics with photo classes on shooting nature and wildlife.
Frost says this great breadth of activity is intentional. "Los Angeles can be so sprawling and incomprehensible to people sometimes. We love the idea of this great diverse city being united by, of all things, birds. It's such a positive idea, one that reminds me of the great community feeling that CicLAvia inspires."

"We didn't want it to be owned by any one group," Frost adds, "We want organizations to interpret it in their own way, just as we want participants to connect in their own way."

A picnic on the Bowtie parcel by the L.A. River | Photo: Lila Higgins
A picnic on the Bowtie parcel by the L.A. River | Photo: Lila Higgins

One such way is via a simple picnic, which Lila Higgins from the Natural History Museum and Play the L.A. River has done previously, starting with an informal picnic on her birthday last year. "My birthday and Mother's day are always super close, but that year they were on the same day," recalls Higgins. "I called my mum on the phone and asked her if she would be interested in having a teatime picnic on the L.A. River instead of waiting in a really long line at some restaurant. She said yes." Thus began one of many picnics by the river.

For Bird L.A. Day, Higgins has designed a pop-up picnic in Elysian Valley along the river targeted especially to birders. Bring your own binoculars, if you have them.

"L.A. River picnics are an activation of forgotten and sometimes hidden spaces," says Higgins, who has been hosting these picnics around the city as well, but has lately focused on the riverbanks. "These places in, along, and above (on bridges) the river are often seen as inhospitable, dangerous, or just plain uninviting. Sometimes all people need is an invitation. The picnics are invitations. As I sit down in the river channel on a red checkered blanket with other people, sharing food and space other people can't help but notice."

Higgins says that during L.A. River picnics, pedestrians, cyclists and even drivers wave as they go past. The naturalist says her hope is that the picnics inspire others to spend time by their section of the riverbanks, familiarizing themselves with the river's currents and wild inhabitants.

For this river picnic, Higgins is preparing bird books, a few binoculars, and perhaps some even bird-day treats. She also intends to do some casual data collection, which will be added to eBird, an online database of bird sightings. Any photos collected will also be shared on iNaturalist. "This will add to the data we have on the wildlife in the L.A., and will be a resource to scientists/conservationists who want to study/restore the L.A. river," explains Higgins. By helping conservationists document the species of birds on the river, future city planning can also take wildlife needs into consideration.

"The fact that birds can thrive in our concretized and abused river, helps us to appreciate wildlife in the city," says Higgins. "For me it inspires love and care for the river. I want the river to be a place that baby ducks and dragonflies and all manner of other creatures -- us humans included -- can survive and thrive."

For a list of Bird L.A. Day events, check here. Details on Picnic on the L.A. River on Bird L.A. Day can be found here.

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