Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Is That A Bat or A Bird Flying Over the LA River?

A lot of people are interested in the bats that we have in the Los Angeles area. Bats in LA. That's a good thing, because bats need friends. Bats provide a great service by eating tons of insects. But not everything you see with pointy wings flying at dawn or dusk is a bat.

I recently had a comment from a reader asking about groups of 20-30 bats flying over the Los Angeles River in the Burbank area early in the morning. An observant eye can frequently see nature attracted to the Los Angeles River as you make your slow commute on the Ventura Freeway. I've seen these wheeling silhouettes as well, but probably what this traveler saw were birds and not bats. 

Bats typically return to their roosts before dawn. Seldom do you see our local bat species in a group unless it is right as they are emerging from their roosting location in the evening. 

At specific times of the year when there are insect blooms along the river, you can see swallows or swifts in groups flying quickly over the river catching insects. These small birds can look similar to bats. Both have narrow wings that help them maneuver quickly so they can catch insects on the wing. Both are dark in silhouette and some swallows and swifts have minimal tails that may make them appear batlike. 

But if you look closely you will see a difference. Bats typically have a faster wing beat and seldom glide. Swallows and swifts on the other hand will glide in between wing beats. These birds frequently are seen in flocks ranging from 10 to 1,000s of individuals. One evening along the banks of Utah Lake just south of Provo, we watched hundreds of thousands of swallows feeding on swarming insects just before a storm. I've never seen so many birds in one place in my life. 

These two animals bats and swallows (or swifts) are filling a similar niche in the ecosystem; they are flying predators feeding on small flying insects. And they share the workload, bats at night and the birds during the day. Occasionally, when the insects are plentiful and the weather is just right the two shifts will cross and you may see the furry and the feathered creatures sharing the sky. Both are doing their best to reduce the numbers of mosquitoes along our river and around our neighborhoods. All they ask in return is habitat to roost and nest in and insects that haven't been poisoned. Birds and bats need you to be their friends.

Swallows and swifts you are most likely to see in the Los Angeles area:
white-throated swift, chimney swift,Vaux's swift, barn swallow, cliff swallow, northern rough-winged swallow, violet-green swallow and tree swallow

For more about these bird species check out Cornell University's About Birds website:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

11/11/11 Calabasas Creek Park

Did you take a few minutes on 11/11/11 to go adventuring?

I’ve become fascinated by the Los Angeles River. I want to explore it from its trickle out of the mountains to its tumble into the sea. I think there is much to be discovered especially in relation to birdlife.

Yesterday morning we headed out to Calabasas Creek Park in old town Calabasas. It is a small bit of land tucked next to the Ventura Fwy just east of the Sagebrush Cantina. A hundred years or so ago, Calabasas Creek ran past Leonis Adobe and headed east to join with Bell Creek and Chatsworth Creek to form the headwaters of the Los Angeles River.

Forty years ago, Calabasas was a dusty half-block of old clapboard buildings and the creek was seasonal and forced into a cement drainage system. Today there seems to be a steady flow of water down the canyon. As long as that flow is a well-mannered creek, it is allowed to flow under the road and through Calabasas Creek Park.

A cement dam creates a gentle pond under wide-spreading ancient oaks and on this day the pond was dappled with mallards. The male mallards are just starting to take on their breeding plumage and they were looking quite smart.  As we overlooked the pond we noticed two fascinating things.

  • Whenever the fox tree squirrels in the coast live oaks dropped an acorn into the pond, some of the mallards, mostly males, dashed to snatch it up. They were grabbing the inch-and-a-half long acorns and swallowing them down. It was amazing. I’d never heard of ducks eating acorns. And they weren’t all doing it. Some swam to the dropped fruit only to be disappointed and confused as to why others were eating these big hard things.
  • The second thing we noticed was the pattern of the ducks in the water. The spacing was amazingly regular. As we watched it became apparent that the male mallards were maintaining a minimum of 1.5 feet between themselves. A male that compromised that “personal space” was either chased away or was purposefully forcing other males to move. Females were allowed to swim in between the males without comment. This wasn’t just ducks floating on a pond, this was a very organized social gathering.

While the mallards commanded the pond and the creek flowing out of the park, overhead bushtits, oak titmice, yellow-rumped warblers and an unusual sight, a summer tanager moved through the trees. A downy woodpecker feasted on insects in an oak gall. While in the well-manicured front garden a western tanager and house finches bathed in the fountain. In all there were 11 species of birds, a western fence lizard, a huge orb spider, one gardener and us in the park.

Calabasas Creek Park offers easy access, manageable size and a quiet escape. Discover one of the watery fingers that reaches down to become the Los Angeles River.

Calabasas Creek Park is open 1 PM - 4 PM Wed. - Friday & Sunday, and 10 AM - 4 PM Saturday. For more information visit

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Big Year - Movie Review

A Big Yes for "The Big Year" with Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. Finally a movie that offers intelligent humor with realistic characters and conflict. Three men with the goal to see the most bird species in North America during a calendar year. While it may seem crazy to some, it was a real contest of perseverance, character and skill. Yes, the facts have been aided to enhance the dramatic structure and this drama isn't giant transforming robots or explosive terrorist plots, its what most of us really can relate to: transforming moments in our lives and the plot twists in our personal relationships.

Personally I'm tired of outlandish comedies aimed at teens that are based on ridiculous hyperbole. It is a pleasure to travel along with these characters on an adventure that you can take with any member of your family and not be worried about the language or situations on the screen. Hopefully this film will stay on screens long enough for family holiday movie going.

I was out birding with some people this morning and everyone was eager to see this movie, but they couldn't find places where it was playing. This is a quiet movie that has the potential to build an audience, but only if the marketing people understand that not every film brings in its biggest box office in the first weeks.

There is more to "The Big Year" than birding. Everyone has a dream that is important to them that might be seem absurd to someone else. Maybe I'm biased because I am a birder and the notion of doing a Big Year seems like a holy grail, but even if you look beyond the birding quest, the characters in this movie are seeking personal fulfillment. They are trying to find something within themselves. Maybe we would all be better off if we stopped reaching for the bright and shiny things that got our economy into the mess it is in and started looking at our own internal goals. There is no big villain and no crazy slapstick in this film, instead there is wit, creative imagery, beautiful locations and wonderful characters played by a cast of experience actors that know what it is really like to be flawed humans all trying to find the best of themselves.

Plus it motivated me to go birding this morning. 54 species at Malibu Lagoon State Park!