TALES OF A BUDDING NATURALIST: A Photo Essay

Western Tanager, September/October 2016

by Jamie Lowry

It all started with the “Pinkies”.

It was about three years ago, in November. I happened to be at a stage in my life when I was in transition. I had recently retired. My children were well on their way to adulthood. And I wanted to get back in shape, after a few years of having let things slide from a physical fitness perspective. Key among the latter attempt was my resolve to go on frequent, long, brisk walks. Since I lived in Hermosa Beach, what better place was there to go on these walks than the beach?

Having lived in Hermosa Beach for over thirty years, I already loved the beach, especially in the fall and winter months when the summer crowds were gone. In the past, while going on walks or hanging out on the sand, I had always kept an eye out for wildlife -- whales, dolphins, pelicans, sandpipers, gulls and the like -- and for treasures waiting to be found along the shore, such as sand dollars, shells, sea glass, moonstone, quartz, agates and other pretty pebbles. But when I began walking along the shore on an almost daily basis, I started to notice more detail. For example, there wasn’t just one kind of sandpiper. They were different sizes and colors and shapes and had different behaviors. I started to give them nicknames. The tiny ones that hung out in small flocks and ran in and out of the waves so fast their little legs were a blur I called “Chicklets.” The taller ones that looked similar to each other except for the shapes of their beaks I called “Hook-Bills” and “Straight-Beaks.” But the ones I most enjoyed watching were the largest, with cinnamon-tinted feathers and elegant long legs and extremely long bills that were mostly pink, with black tips. They walked in a leisurely, delicate manner along the edge of the waves while drilling those long beaks into the wet sand every few steps; they seemed oblivious to my watching them from only a few feet away. These were the “Pinkies.”

After some months of listening to me rhapsodizing about my walks and the birds I was enjoying getting to know, my daughter finally interrupted me one day and said, “Mom, you really should figure out what the real names of those birds are!” And she was right, of course. (In fact, I had often thought, while at the beach, that I should find out more about these birds, including their names; but once I got home I usually got distracted by other things.) So I did some searching on the computer. It turns out the “Chicklets” are in fact Sanderlings, and are wintering shorebirds that migrate back and forth from the Arctic every year. The “Hook-Bills” are Whimbrels and the “Straight-Beaks” are Willets. And the “Pinkies,” my favorites, are called Marbled Godwits.

While researching these birds on my computer, I arrived at some point at the Los Angeles Audubon Society website. (If, in classical times, it was true that “all roads lead to Rome;” I think it is equally true that, in modern times, all bird searches lead to Audubon.) In any event, while at the website I noticed a heading relating to volunteer opportunities, clicked on it -- and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now, a few years later, it is safe to say that I have launched myself into a new career (my third or fourth if anyone’s counting) – that of a naturalist! My first volunteer endeavor was to be trained as a docent in Los Angeles Audubon’s education program at the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve (“Ballona Wetlands”), located just a few miles to the north of me; the program is also supported by Santa Monica Audubon. This outstanding program provides field trips to elementary school children wherein they are led on a tour of the wetlands, stopping at four educational stations, and observing all manner of wildlife while hiking between them. The program is directed by the first naturalist I ever met, and the most inspiring in terms of her enthusiasm, breadth and depth of knowledge, and interpretive skills, Cindy Hardin. Each training session and each tour day at the wetlands was and is an eye-opening experience, as there is always so much to see and to learn about, from Cindy, from the guest speakers (at training sessions), from the other docents, from the students, and from nature itself.

I have also been trained and currently participate as a citizen scientist in Audubon’s Snowy Plover Beach Monitoring program; have been trained and completed the requirements to become a Sierra Club ICO (“Inspiring Connections Outdoors”) Leader, participating in and leading local wilderness hikes for elementary through high school students; and have completed the University of California Naturalist Certification Course. And I am just getting started! Every little step I take and everything I learn makes me realize how much more there is to see and learn about nature, right here in the Los Angeles area of Southern California.

While out in nature, I enjoy whipping out my little pocket-sized digital camera and attempting to take photos of some of the interesting things that I see. When the conditions are right and the wildlife cooperates by holding relatively still and I take enough shots, I occasionally get one or two worth sharing. Here are some of my photos.

The bird that started it all for me: a Marbled Godwit, Limosa fedoa, (a.k.a. “Pinkie”), foraging in the surf in Hermosa Beach.
The bird that started it all for me: a Marbled Godwit, Limosa fedoa, (a.k.a. “Pinkie”), foraging in the surf in Hermosa Beach.

On my first beach walks, I first focused on the Marbled Godwit, pictured above. Then there were a few other local species of sandpipers I got to know: the Whimbrels, Willets and Sanderlings.

A Whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus, displaying its downward-curving bill, on the sand in Hermosa Beach (a “Hook-Bill”).
A Whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus, displaying its downward-curving bill, on the sand in Hermosa Beach (a “Hook-Bill”).

A Willet, Catoptrophorus semipalatus, posing at the rocks along Ballona Creek (Ballona Wetlands).  I see these frequently on my walks in Hermosa Beach as well.  (These I called “Straight-Beaks.”)
A Willet, Catoptrophorus semipalatus, posing at the rocks along Ballona Creek (Ballona Wetlands).  I see these frequently on my walks in Hermosa Beach as well. (These I called “Straight-Beaks.”)

Small flock of Sanderlings, Caldris alba, foraging together in Hermosa Beach (the "Chicklets").
Small flock of Sanderlings, Caldris alba, foraging together in Hermosa Beach (the "Chicklets").

In my volunteer work with L.A. Audubon’s Snowy Plover Beach Monitoring program, led by Stacey Vigallon, I learned how to spot the tiny, elusive (and endangered) Snowy Plover while on my beach walks, along with its larger cousin the Black-bellied Plover.

5-Snowy-PloverCharadrius-alexandrinus
An alert Snowy Plover, Charadrius alexandrinus, on the beach in Hermosa, one of the few L.A. County beaches on which they winter. Some are banded and, when possible, while conducting our regular surveys for L.A. Audubon, we make note of the band colors, two on each leg, so that the experts can trace exactly where that particular bird was hatched and banded.

A few Black-bellied Plovers, Pluvialis squatarola, newly arrived in Hermosa Beach from their breeding grounds, some still at least partially bedecked in their black-bellied breeding plumage.  A Whimbrel has joined them.
A few Black-bellied Plovers, Pluvialis squatarola, newly arrived in Hermosa Beach from their breeding grounds, some still at least partially bedecked in their black-bellied breeding plumage. A Whimbrel has joined them.

And of course there are many species of gulls and terns that frequent the beach, along with other birds, pictures of which I have not included in this essay.

Once I got involved in the education program at Ballona Wetlands, I became acquainted or reacquainted with an abundance of species of native wildlife residing in or visiting the wetlands. First there were the herons and egrets, large and highly visible, always star attractions for the schoolchildren.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, wading in the main tidal channel at Ballona Wetlands.  These birds are year-round residents of the wetlands, and nest in nearby trees across the creek.  During nesting season, we train one of our spotting scopes on the nesting activity, to the delight of the students.
Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias, wading in the main tidal channel at Ballona Wetlands. These birds are year-round residents of the wetlands, and nest in nearby trees across the creek. During nesting season, we train one of our spotting scopes on the nesting activity, to the delight of the students.

Great Egret, Ardea alba, craning its neck in search of a meal, Ballona Wetlands. We’ve observed these birds consume snakes and lizards, as well as fish.
Great Egret, Ardea alba, craning its neck in search of a meal, Ballona Wetlands. We’ve observed these birds consume snakes and lizards, as well as fish.

A Snowy Egret, Egretta thula, in hunting mode in a tidal channel, Ballona Wetlands.
A Snowy Egret, Egretta thula, in hunting mode in a tidal channel, Ballona Wetlands.

An inquisitive Snowy Egret, getting up close and personal at our “Bird Station” on the creek, Ballona Wetlands.
An inquisitive Snowy Egret, getting up close and personal at our “Bird Station” on the creek, Ballona Wetlands.

Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax, foraging in a tidal channel at Ballona Wetlands.
Black-crowned Night-Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax, foraging in a tidal channel at Ballona Wetlands.

Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Nyctanassa violacea, apparently airing out its wings, Ballona Wetlands.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Nyctanassa violacea, apparently airing out its wings, Ballona Wetlands.

Then there are the cormorants, grebes, and diving ducks.

A Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus, drying out its wings in the sun along the creek, Ballona Wetlands.
A Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus, drying out its wings in the sun along the creek, Ballona Wetlands.

Another Double-crested Cormorant, this one displaying its white crests, the breeding plumage which gave it its name, Ballona Wetlands.
Another Double-crested Cormorant, this one displaying its white crests, the breeding plumage which gave it its name, Ballona Wetlands.

Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentalis, Ballona Wetlands.  This one was temporarily rousted out of the creek by some boisterous college rowing teams passing by.
Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentalis, Ballona Wetlands. This one was temporarily rousted out of the creek by some boisterous college rowing teams passing by.

16-Red-Breasted-MerganserMergus-serrator
Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator, Ballona Wetlands. There were three of these birds actively fishing right alongside this Double-Crested Cormorant, who somehow ended up in every photo.

One of the especially unique habitats at Ballona Wetlands is the saltpan. There are several areas encompassing saltpan which, when moistened by rainwater, draw large numbers of migrating and wintering shorebirds to feed, including stilts, avocets, several species of terns and many others.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus, wading in one of the saltpan areas at Ballona Wetlands.  There was a successful nesting pair here this year; this is one of the proud parents of three chicks.
Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus, wading in one of the saltpan areas at Ballona Wetlands. There was a successful nesting pair here this year; this is one of the proud parents of three chicks.

A pair of American Avocets, Recurvirostra Americana, foraging with their thin, up-turned, scythe-like bills in a water-covered saltpan at Ballona Wetlands.
A pair of American Avocets, Recurvirostra Americana, foraging with their thin, up-turned, scythe-like bills in a water-covered saltpan at Ballona Wetlands.

Ballona is home also at various times to owls, ducks, geese, and such raptors as Red-Tailed Hawks, Red-Shouldered Hawks, Norther Harriers, Coopers Hawks, and Ospreys, among others.

A Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia, sitting quietly outside its burrow at Ballona Wetlands.
A Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia, sitting quietly outside its burrow at Ballona Wetlands.

An Osprey, Pandion haliaetus, perched on a post in the main tidal channel, Ballona Wetlands. It is a special treat to watch one dive and catch a fish, or even devour a snake; both events have recently been observed here by students on field trips.
An Osprey, Pandion haliaetus, perched on a post in the main tidal channel, Ballona Wetlands. It is a special treat to watch one dive and catch a fish, or even devour a snake; both events have recently been observed here by students on field trips.

Then there are the mammals, reptiles and invertebrates, all of which abound at the wetlands. There are cottontail rabbits, ground squirrels, gophers, foxes, raccoons and coyotes; lizards and snakes; and a huge number of species of invertebrates including California horn snails, fiddler crabs, amphipods and other microscopic creatures, and insects in all stages of development.

A baby Cottontail Rabbit, Sylvilagus audubonii, munching on native plants on the trail through the sand dunes at Ballona Wetlands.
A baby Cottontail Rabbit, Sylvilagus audubonii, munching on native plants on the trail through the sand dunes at Ballona Wetlands.

A pair of Pacific Gopher Snakes, Pituophis catenifer catenifer, coiling around each other near their hole, Ballona Wetlands.
A pair of Pacific Gopher Snakes, Pituophis catenifer catenifer, coiling around each other near their hole, Ballona Wetlands.

Besides my local beach and the Ballona Wetlands, I have explored other local pockets of wilderness and come across more fascinating species of wildlife, both flora and fauna.

A Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus, on a cliff at Pt. Vicente Nature Preserve, Palos Verdes Peninsula. I later learned that this was one of a nesting pair that successfully fledged three chicks this year.

A Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus, on a cliff at Pt. Vicente Nature Preserve, Palos Verdes Peninsula. I later learned that this was one of a nesting pair that successfully fledged three chicks this year.

Coastal Cactus Wren, Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus ssp. sandiegensis, perched above a stand of prickly pear cactus at Alta Vicente Nature Preserve, Palos Verdes Peninsula.  It took me three visits to this area to finally spot one of these birds.

Coastal Cactus Wren, Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus ssp. sandiegensis, perched above a stand of prickly pear cactus at Alta Vicente Nature Preserve, Palos Verdes Peninsula. It took me three visits to this area to finally spot one of these birds.

A Sweet Potato Sea Cucumber, Caudina arenicola, spotted while tide-pooling at Malaga Cove, Palos Verdes Peninsula.
A Sweet Potato Sea Cucumber, Caudina arenicola, spotted while tide-pooling at Malaga Cove, Palos Verdes Peninsula.

A California Sea Lion, Zalopus californianus, opening one eye to peer at me while lounging on a boat ramp at the Redondo Beach marina.
A California Sea Lion, Zalopus californianus, opening one eye to peer at me while lounging on a boat ramp at the Redondo Beach marina.

Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, hunting on the rocks at the Redondo Beach marina.
Black Oystercatcher, Haematopus bachmani, hunting on the rocks at the Redondo Beach marina.

A Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, perched near tule grass at the Madrona Marsh in Torrance.
A Red-winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus, perched near tule grass at the Madrona Marsh in Torrance.

A Harlequin Bug, Murgantia histrionica, on its favorite native plant, Bladderpod, Peritoma arborea, at the Madrona Marsh.
A Harlequin Bug, Murgantia histrionica, on its favorite native plant, Bladderpod, Peritoma arborea, at the Madrona Marsh.

Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis, Dominguez Gap Wetlands (L.A. River), Long Beach
Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis, Dominguez Gap Wetlands (L.A. River), Long Beach

I sometimes range a little farther from home (but still within the L.A. area). Here are a few animals I spotted recently in the Santa Monica Mountains.

California Quail, Callipepla californica, Sycamore Canyon, Pt. Mugu State Park.
California Quail, Callipepla californica, Sycamore Canyon, Pt. Mugu State Park.

Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata, Santa Ynez Canyon, Pacific Palisades.
Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata, Santa Ynez Canyon, Pacific Palisades.

California Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus californicus, Santa Ynez Canyon.  My hiking companion and I came across a doe and fawn, both of whom gazed curiously at us for a moment and then continued their grazing.
California Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus californicus, Santa Ynez Canyon. My hiking companion and I came across a doe and fawn, both of whom gazed curiously at us for a moment and then continued their grazing.

Finally, coming full circle in my adventures, here is a shot of a wild bird that appears regularly within a few feet of my kitchen door.

A Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, squawking (like a crow) angrily at my two cats, who were out on their deck in Hermosa Beach.  This is one of a pair that fiercely guarded their nearby nest.
A Northern Mockingbird, Mimus polyglottos, squawking (like a crow) angrily at my two cats, who were out on their deck in Hermosa Beach. This is one of a pair that fiercely guarded their nearby nest.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR/PHOTOGRAPHER
Jamie F. Lowry was born and raised in a small town in southwestern Michigan. After earning degrees from Michigan State University and the University of Michigan Law School, she relocated to Hermosa Beach, California, and began practicing law with a large international law firm with offices in downtown Los Angeles. Some years later she started a new career as a full-time mother of two children, a daughter and a son. She later combined motherhood with a part-time resumption of her legal career. She is now retired and continues to live in Hermosa Beach.

She has always been fascinated with nature, wildlife and natural science, and she and her husband have been long-time supporters of many environmental and conservation-related groups and causes. She is currently active in volunteer work along those lines, and is a certified California naturalist. She also enjoys travel, music, books and art. She frequently takes photographs while out in nature for her own personal records and to share what she has observed with friends and family. Outside of some postings on iNaturalist.org, this is the first general publication of any of her photographs. All photos in this article were taken with a Canon PowerShot camera (5.0-40.0mm 1:3.2-6.9, with an 8x15 zoom).

She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


 

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