Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dusk at Back Bay

After decompressing a bit from Monday's flights from Atlanta to John Wayne Airport, I glanced at the clock and realized that I needed to get outside and stretch my legs before more time elapsed. The sunny, warm afternoon looked too delightful to spend the last of it in an enclosed space.

I grabbed a new binocular, shoved a field guide into the back pocket of my jeans, retrieved a pen and a small notebook, and hopped into the old Bimmer for the lickety-split drive to Back Bay. After parking in a neighborhood cul-de-sac and navigating the logs that mark the start of a trail, I immediately saw a small brown bird flit into the brush. A look at the underside of its tail made me think "wren," and the subsequent scolding sound confirmed it: House Wren.

Continuing down the trail, enjoying the sound of a Black Phoebe and stepping aside for teenage boys on mountain bikes, I arrived at the low bluff above the estuary. My visit coincided with low tide, and the now-visible muck hosted waders and shorebirds. I spied American Avocet (those birds look so dapper in their winter plumage), Snowy Egret, Great Egret, Willet, American Coot and immature Double-crested Cormorant through the 8-power bin. Mental note: A spotting scope would've been more appropriate. (Duh.)

One bird didn't require a scope's magnification, though. While walking along the elevated trail beside a stream, I saw another small brown bird dash across the dirt and into the leaf litter below a tree. It started rustling the leaves a lot, making it a wee bit easier to search for it -- but not that much easier.

The critter's cryptic coloring performed its job quite well. The peripatetic LBJ played "catch me if you can," and only its foraging behavior -- kicking leaves back with both feet -- allowed me to follow its erratic progress amid the leaf litter. Multiple quick glances revealed a dark crown stripe, a light supercilium, a brown eyeline, dark streaks on a light chest... and then the lightbulb went off.

This exasperating little bird (Will it ever stop moving? No!) looked like the Song Sparrow that a friend identified last month at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. A later look through the field guide confirmed it: Melospiza melodia heermanni.

After experiencing the warm glow of "I.D. triumph," I started feeling the cooling temperature of the evening. The setting sun had turned the mirrored high-rise buildings into orange rectangles, and the jets overhead now flew south toward pinkish-orange and lavendar clouds in the pale-blue sky.

Retracing my steps on the dirt trail, I revelled in this natural open space surrounded by urban Orange County. A wonderful antidote to a day spent in airports and jets, the bay allowed me to observe the modern world's born fliers.

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