Birding Column: Shorebirds in Malibu

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
for National Geographic News
September 14, 2004
For six days in late March and early April, I spent some time hanging
out with the shorebirds at Malibu Lagoon State Beach, just off Highway 1
at Cross Creek, near Los Angeles. After a short walk across two bridges,
I decided to park myself on the third bridge over the lagoon. The bridge
afforded me a view of a channel of water on the inland side, and a
shallow, sandy area on the seaward side.

Here, I made a habit out of watching the snowy and great egrets, both of which started their foraging well upstream from me and gradually worked their way down to the bridge. It was at just this moment that I put my 200mm-500mm Tamron lens into action.

The egrets forage by standing over an area of water and remaining perfectly still, and then striking at fish with great speed and precision. The great egret also has another interesting technique. It often shuffles its feet back and forth on the lagoon bottom, stirring things up so that it can eat them.

Both egrets have incredible patience. They'll sometimes stand in the same position for 10 or 15 minutes—although it seems like hours.

I had some fun playing with the reflection of the great egret in the water, as I took my photos. Meanwhile, the green-winged teals were dabbling about in the water as well, looking for things to eat. Sometimes, these "dabbling ducks" skim their bills along the surface of the water, filtering out the waste matter and ingesting the nutritious stuff. But in deeper water, they tilt their bodies upside down (a process called upending) and search for food in the water as far down as their bodies will let them.

The green-winged teals were only stopping in the lagoon for a short while, as they were on their way to their northern breeding grounds for the summer. This was also true with the common snipe, lesser yellowlegs, willet, and western sandpiper. The elegant terns were no doubt on their way south to their breeding grounds in the Gulf of California.

However, there were plenty of resident shorebirds hanging out in the lagoon as well, such as the American coot, killdeer, and American avocet. At one point a great-tailed grackle appeared in the shallow water just beneath me, and I snapped a shot of him as quickly as I could before he disappeared a few minutes later, never to return. He was outside of his normal range inland from here, and he must have strayed into this area somehow.

Fun With the Gulls

I also had some fun with the gulls during my sessions at the lagoon. Early one morning I caught a gull yawning as he started out the day, and I was also fortunate enough to record a gull as he took off from the water, leaving his buddies bobbing around on the surface below.

One day I walked around to the ocean and took in the view back toward the lagoon. In the foreground a group of brown pelicans had flocked together on a small island of sand. This afforded them good protection from predators, and it also meant that they didn't fly off, even when I got to within 20 feet(6 meters) of them.

Now, the thing that impresses me about my visits to Malibu Lagoon State Beach is the sheer diversity of the birds that I see in such a short period of time and in such a small area. After all, Malibu Lagoon State Beach only covers 22 acres (9 hectares)! If nothing else, this should make the point abundantly clear that we must protect as much of the remaining coastal wetlands as we can—both for migrating birds, resident birds, and for bird fanatics such as myself!

Talking to Birders

During my visits to Malibu Lagoon State Beach, I have been very impressed with how helpful other birders have been to me. Total strangers, they have identified the pie-billed and eared grebes; explained the difference between royal, elegant, Caspian, and Forster's terns; and even pointed me in the direction of a small corner of reeds where an extremely rare (for this location) sora was hanging out, making brief forays every now and then into the shallow water to gorge on large clumps of green algae.

What this taught me was never to be shy with other birders out in the field—and there's no such thing as a dumb question.

One day in early October, a fellow birder at Malibu Lagoon State Beach informed me that the MacGillivray's, Wilson's, orange-crowned, and yellow warblers could be seen flitting through the trees and bushes along the shore. My goodness, I thought, I just saw these species two months ago up at Devil's Postpile National Monument, more than 300 miles (480 kilometers) to the north. Could they possibly be migrating through Malibu, right on cue?

Sure enough, on closer inspection, I saw not only these four warblers, but the common yellowthroat as well. I even noticed a juvenile white-crowned sparrow in the reeds along the water, newly arrived on its wintering grounds.

As I say, it always pays off if you talk to fellow birders out in the field!

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California. You can follow his encounters with the birds of the Santa Monica Mountains here on National Geographic News Bird Watcher every fortnight or so.

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