Some remarks on birding in Santa Barbara County
by Barb Millett
For many years the only bird records I kept were for my California and North America lists. It wasn’t until this SBCO Birding
listserve was in its 8th year that I decided to pull together what records I could find and join the fray of county listing. Those
records added up to 372 species – a total which probably errs on the low side, but better that than an inflated number. And
may I say that if I didn’t hate being seasick so very much, this total would no doubt be more impressive.
I’ll mostly comment on pre-Internet local birding, since post-Internet birding is covered pretty well out in cyberspace already.
I’ve been birding in Santa Barbara County for several decades now. In the late 60’s and early 70’s I was only casually
interested in birds, but an early sighting that made a big impression on me was seeing a California Condor on a backpacking
trip in the Sierra Madre Mts. I was with my friend Jane Easton and her father, Bob Easton. Mr. Easton, who was very familiar
with this species, spotted the condor first, and made sure we didn’t miss out on the excitement. Of course, in those days, all
condors were wild; the captive breeding program had not yet begun.
I began seriously studying local birds in 1978, when I took a vertebrate zoology course at UCSB, a course which includes
being tested on bird identification in the field. On the quarter system you have to learn a lot pretty quickly. After finishing
my biology degree, I moved away for four years. During that time I did a lot of birding in northern California, New York State,
and New Jersey. My serious Santa Barbara County birding didn’t begin until December 1985 when I moved back to Santa
In the late 80’s and early 90’s I was out birding often with my buddies Joan Lentz,
Guy Tingos, Allyn Bissel, and Shawneen Finnegan. They shared with me their
knowledge of bird identification, vocalizations, and where the best birding spots
were in the county. Before cell phones and this SBCO Birding listserve, there was an
imperfect “telephone tree” of sorts to alert birders to rare or unusual sightings. It
was all very ad hoc. Allyn used to say if you’re lucky enough to get one of those calls
you’d better show up where the bird was seen; or you won’t get called the next time.
It seems this is part of an unwritten Birders’ Code. I remember a phone call that
sent me running to Winchester Canyon to see the Red-headed Woodpecker on my
lunch hour, and another call that had me racing to the Santa Barbara Harbor, for
Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels. Amazingly, when I arrived, the storm-petrels were still
there, four of them, swirling around off the end of the pier. A double happiness; I
didn’t have to set foot on a boat to see a pelagic species.
After spotting something unusual or noteworthy, to get the word out, we did have the Rare Bird Alert – many thanks to
Karen Bridgers -- or we called Paul Lehman with the report, which at first I found somewhat daunting. Of course, Paul’s
thesis wasn’t published yet, so we were relying on the 43 pages of “The Birds of Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties,
California” (1980) by Richard Webster, Paul Lehman and Louis Bevier for status and distribution information.
I have never found a first county record myself, but one October day in 1989, I was with three other birders when a new
species was added to the list, and it’s one of my favorite memories of birding in this county. Shawneen Finnegan, Joan Lentz,
Tom Wurster and I were birding near Guadalupe, in a spot referred to as “the pond at the Blue Barn”. We saw a group of teal
in basic plumage, and three of us, being unimpressed, were ready to leave. But Shawneen thought she saw something
different about one of them. She was thinking Garganey, and that was in fact what the bird turned out to be. None of us,
including Shawneen, had ever seen this species before. It’s hard to admit it, but we were puzzled by the attention she was
giving this rather plain looking duck. In breeding plumage, a male Garganey is very distinctive, but in basic plumage, the field
marks separating species of teal from one another are subtle. And to make matters more difficult, the bird kept hiding in the
reeds. One field mark is gray legs (as opposed to yellowish legs in Cinnamon and Blue-Winged Teal) but these birds rarely tip
up – that is not how they feed. Shawneen was the only one of us who had the diagnostic field marks in her head, and made
sure she got a look at them. It was the perfect lesson in what it takes to find a rare bird. Besides being in the right place at
the right time, it takes keen observation, an informed mind and perseverance. And sometimes it takes crawling through the
reeds on your hands and knees to finally see the color of a bird’s legs.
Anyone who has been birding more than 10 or 15 years has seen the major changes brought about by the Internet, email and
cell phones. These have all had major effects on how we gain knowledge of birds and circulate that knowledge. And here I’d
like to thank Jamie Chavez and Guy Tingos for the fine job they’ve done moderating our listserve. But for me at least, there is
a slight downside to all the technology; I think some of the fun of birding has been lost. Before cell phones, we would use
charades and sign language to communicate with fellow birders on the other side of the slough, or over in the next broccoli
field. And there was the fun of leaving notes under rocks. “The Sharp-tailed Sandpiper was seen at 2:30 in the middle
channel”, or (on CBC day) “saw the Lucy’s Warbler in the fennel— keep looking for the TK” are two that come to mind. On
Count Day in Santa Barbara, we would wait for that lone pay phone at the base of Goleta pier to ring around 12:45. I felt like
I was taking part in some covert operation. It meant Joan Lentz was checking in with findings from the eastern half of the
count circle. Now of course we could meet any number of places, since everyone has a cell phone.
One of the things I like so much about birding is that it generates so many stories. Two of the funniest stories I’ve heard took
place here in Santa Barbara and have to do with Magnificent Frigatebird sightings (thanks to Larry Ballard and Chris Benesh
for sharing these). Magnificent Frigatebird is in fact the bird I would most like to add to my Santa Barbara County list. I have
missed it several times. So if you happen to spot one some summer, please call me ASAP. On my cell phone.