Bird watching in Santa Barbara: the changing of the guard
It is a magical moment in the world of birds. Although many of our familiar wintering birds have passed away, a few remain and have been joined by recent arrivals from Mexico and Central America. In this short window we have the opportunity to see a great diversity of birds – those arriving, those preparing to leave and, of course, the resident birds. Most of them are in their summer finery and sing their hearts out.
Although we understand bird migration better than a decade or two ago, it still seems like a miraculous phenomenon to me. One day the birds are with us and the next day they are gone. The white-crowned sparrows that have spent the winter finding seeds in our yards will disappear overnight. One night, the urge to move will become overwhelming and the birds will embark on a night flight that will take them far north. One can only imagine what it must be like for the diurnal birds for whom the night leaves them most vulnerable. Traveling at night attracts the attention of predators, but the urge to migrate must overcome all fears. Some of our wintering sparrows will travel enormous distances and will need to make several stopovers before arriving at their destination. Some of our winterers nest as far as Puget Sound and beyond.
One bird that was particularly noteworthy this winter was the Northern Harrier, a bird ghost that looks and acts as if it were half a hawk and half an owl. They were especially abundant in More Mesa, one of the last areas of undeveloped grassland along the southern coast. Twilight would see as many as five of these birds float low above the golden grasses, seeking and listening to the movement of rodents and birds. A particularly thrilling sight is seeing a harrier brawl with a short-eared owl, another special bird from More Mesa, and a direct competitor for the harrier’s food.
Harriers, like most other birds of prey, migrate during the day, hunting as they travel. They are known as “jumping migrants,” Alaska’s northernmost breeders wintering the southernmost. Our birds will be leaving overnight, leaving More Mesa and its rodents to red-tailed hawks and white-tailed kites.
The great migratory surge from the south is in full swing. When conditions are right, streams of birds land along the coast at dawn and move up the canyons, feeding and singing as they fly from tree to tree. Refugio Canyon is a particularly good place to observe this phenomenon. On a good morning you may see tanagers, orioles, vireos, flycatchers, kingbirds and warblers all on the move. A few of these migrants will stick around to nest. One of these birds, also one of the most spectacular birds you will see, is the Hooded Oriole. They arrive for the first time in mid-March, announcing their presence with an ascending whistled “wink”. They nest almost exclusively in palm trees, weaving their basket nests on the underside of fronds. If you see a bright orange-yellow appearance with black and white wings and a black throat, this is your bird.
Most migrations will be completed by mid-May and nesting will be in full swing. The first fall migrants, shorebirds, will move south from the Arctic at the end of July. There is always movement in the world of birds.
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