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“BIRDING” LOST VALLEY

Tracy Meyers and Kelly Bennion
(1987)


Bird watching, once associated with little old ladies in walking shorts and tennis shoes, has changed. With the availability of high quality binoculars, spotting scopes, and 35mm cameras, “bird watching” has evolved into “birding”, the fastest growing hobby in the United States. But one thing hasn’t changed, and that is the sheer enjoyment of getting out in the field and watching birds -- no matter what your age or experience.

Birders also notice more than just birds, they become more aware of what is around them. Just like the fisherman who always goes fishing, but never baits his hook, birding gives you an excuse to visit interesting places.

Lost Valley offers many opportunities for birders. The variety of habitats here make it possible to see many different birds, and going out to look for birds can help you see familiar places in a brand new way.

Here are a few tips on how to get started:

What you’ll need

Binoculars are a must. 7x35 or 8x40 magnification are preferred. Anything more powerful is too hard to hold steady and anything less than 35mm won’t transmit enough light, making it harder to see on cloudy days, in shady places, or in the early mornings.

Field guides are good to have along if you are interested in identifying the birds you see and don’t have a more experienced birder handy. Two of the best guidebooks are Field Guide to the Birds of North America (published by the National Geographic Society), and Birds of North America.

The right clothing is also important. Since you will be out walking around you should wear sturdy shoes and a hat to keep the sun off your face. You also should avoid bright-colored clothing, as that may startle the birds and make it harder for you to see them.

How to find birds

Start early. Birds are most active in the morning, and quiet during the midday, and fairly active again in the late afternoon.

Move slowly and quietly. The more you can blend in with your surroundings the better your chances of seeing birds are. Individuals and small groups see more birds than large groups.

Listen. You will often hear birds before you see them.

Look everywhere. Birds can be found scratching the ground for seeds, climbing tree trunks, flitting amongst the leaves, swimming in ponds, or soaring overhead.

Once you have found a bird, there are a few tricks that may help you to get a better look at it. “Pishing” (a hissing sound, like say “pshaw” over and over), kissing the back of your hand, or imitating the bird’s song are all sounds that make some birds curious and keep them out in the open longer. These methods are effective, although some say that birders go out in small groups because this kind of behavior should have few witnesses.

How to identify birds

Once you spot a bird, don’t waste time. Try to notice as much as you can as fast as you can. Remember, the birds have no reason to sit still for you.

What size is the bird? You can’t measure the bird with just your eyes, but you can compare it with other birds you already know. Is it as large as a sparrow? A robin? A crow?

What color (or colors) is the bird, and where are those colors on the bird? What color is the head? The breast? The wings? The tail?

Is the bird making any noise? It might be chirping, hooting, singing, or even croaking. But make sure you are really hearing a bird, and not a frog, chipmunk, or squirrel.

What’s the bird doing? Is it soaring, running, hopping, climbing up a tree, down a tree, darting out from a perch and then returning, hovering, flitting, wading, swimming, etc.? Some behavior is limited to certain groups of birds. For example, you won’t find a hummingbird swimming or a quail soaring across the sky.

Where to look for birds

The main meadow is a good place to start looking at Lost Valley. Though it’s open and unprotected in the center, there are usually birds active around its edges. Look for various flycatchers and Western Bluebirds darting out over the meadow pursuing insects, and then returning to a perch in the trees. The American Robins feed on the ground back under the trees. Flocks of Brewer’s Blackbirds and European Starlings walk in the meadow to feed, while Violet-green Swallows fly low overhead scooping up flying insects.

The area burned in last summer’s fire [1986] has many burned trees that are becoming infested with insects. This makes the burn especially attractive to various species of woodpeckers. Look for them propped up against the tree trunks using their tails as braces while the chip off the bark in search of the insects underneath. White-breasted Nuthatches may also be prowling around, heading down the trunks more often than up in search of food, while Western Bluebirds are busy catching insects in the air.

The wooded areas around the campsites are home to a wide variety of birds. Mountain Chickadees should be up in the trees singing their clear whistle songs. On the ground, Dark-eyed Juncos pick for seeds and fly off to hide, flashing white in their tails. Steller’s Jays should be obvious with their blue body and black-crested head, scolding everyone and stealing your food. At night, listen for the deep hooting of a Great Horned Owl. Squeaking like a mouse may lure this nocturnal hunter closer to you in anticipation of an easy meal.

Birds need water, too, so you may want to visit the area around our lake. American coots should be paddling around looking for tasty bits of algae. During quiet times a Great Blue Heron often stalks the shoreline looking for frogs and fish. Or, you may hear the machine gun-like call of a Belted Kingfisher flying over the lake in search of fish. If you walk up the creek above the lake, listen for soft, high-pitched chirps back in the willows. Those are Yellow Warblers, a bright yellow bird that you might easily overlook. Killdeer nest in the sandy areas around the lake and will try to lure you away with agitated calls and broken wing displays.

Beyond the Rifle Range and on the hillsides surrounding the valley the vegetation turns to a dry desert scrub or Chaparral. The birds found here are especially secretive, making it all the more rewarding if you manage to get a glimpse of one. Listen for clicking sounds to lead you to quail running on the ground. Mountain Quail have short plumes that curve forward like a “c”. Scrub Jays (the Chaparral’s counterpart of the Steller’s Jay) are fairly noisy and easy to see. A cat-like “meow” off in the brush is probably a Rufous-sided Towhee. They can be coaxed out into the open by “pishing” or squeaking.

And don’t forget to look overhead. Keep an eye out for raptors (birds of prey). Red-tailed Hawks and Turkey Vultures are common around Lost Valley and you might occasionally see a small American Kestral or an enormous Golden Eagle.

Remember

No matter why you come to Lost Valley taking time to watch for birds can enhance your visit here. It gives you an opportunity to see all kinds of wildlife -- not just birds. Early morning birders have the best chance of seeing a bobcat heading for his den, coming upon a deer bedding down for the day, or seeing a rattlesnake before it sees you.

If nothing else, there is always the satisfaction of knowing that you are exploring the wilderness and seeing a side of Lost Valley many people miss. So take some time while you’re here, pick up your binoculars, open your eyes, open your ears, and . . . happy birding!


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