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sbcoBIRDING Santa Barbara County Birding

How I got started in Santa Barbara County Birding

Joan Easton Lentz

This is the story of how I got started in Santa Barbara County birding. My county list, as of October 2004, totals 421 (including Cackling Goose and Eurasian Collared-Dove) Editors note: Updated total to 429. I take little credit for this, because I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Growing up in Santa Barbara, you feel the presence of nature everywhere.  But I was always interested in birds above all else.

A great aunt who lived in San Francisco gave me a small, faded, field guide by Charles Reed when I was about eight years old.  I loved that little book, with its rather dingy plates and the paragraphs opposite describing birds. Much later, as a young housewife, I discovered Ralph Hoffmann’s “Birds of the Pacific States” – still one of my very favorites.

When my husband and I returned to Santa Barbara to raise our family, I knew absolutely nobody interested in birdwatching.  I was a closet birder.  On Sunday mornings, I would sneak off to sit on a rock in Rattlesnake Creek or explore the Goleta Slough (yes, in those days, there was no fence around airport property – you could just wander in).  I remember sitting by one of the channels counting ducks, while a plane or two came in for a landing.

One day, sometime in the mid-1970s, I discovered the Adult Education bird class.  I was thrilled.  Little pieces of excitement began to filter into my birding expeditions.  Perhaps the first bird I ever “chased” was the Roseate Spoonbill at Devereux Slough in the fall of 1977.

My first real glimpse of “the other world” of bird watching – one I knew nothing about – came when the White Wagtail (then referred to as Black-backed, before it was split) paid a visit to Devereux Slough in October 1978.

That was when I met Paul Lehman for the first time.  My friend, Jeanie O’Kuye, and I had arrived at Devereux, and Paul was in charge.  I seem to remember Jon Dunn and various other well-known birders tip-toeing across the Salicornia in order to get a better view of the wagtail.  Then, up drove a little VW bug and an extremely tall man unfolded himself out of the passenger seat:  Chris Carpenter, an attorney from Oakland.  He and another birder had driven all night to get to Santa Barbara just to see this bird.  I was shocked!  All that way for a bird?  (I had just returned from a trip to Great Britain, where, of course, wagtails were all over the place.)

Paul Lehman.  I’d never met anybody with such an encyclopedic knowledge of birds.  This was serious stuff.  I could feel myself getting hooked, but it was more of a gradual sensation.  Not falling off a cliff, just gently floating down into a whole new way of birding, a whole new way of field identification, a whole new level of intensity.  Eventually, Paul Lehman became my mentor and I owe him a lot.

About this time, I volunteered to be membership chair of Santa Barbara Audubon.  I remember board meetings at the Museum of Natural History with Brad Schram, a wonderful board president, who seemed the wise godfather who knew all about this new world of birding.

By 1980, the bug finally bit.  I signed up to do a CBC, and Montecito was my “area”.  Cherie Bratt, co-compiler of the Count with Paul Lehman, was in charge.  Van Remsen (now a famous ornithologist at LSU), Jon Dunn (now a consultant for the National Geographic guide and field guide for Wings), Kimball Garrett (now an author and ornithologist with the L.A. County Natural History Museum), Rich Stallcup (now a naturalist with Pt. Reyes Bird Observatory), Louis Bevier (now an assistant editor of “North American Birds”), Richard Webster (now a trip leader for Field Guides), Guy McCaskie (general all-round bird guru from San Diego):  these were just a few of the terrific birders that Paul had assembled to help with the Count.  Later, for the 1982-83 Count, they decided to go for a record.  A total of 219 species was seen on Jan. 2, 1983, the highest number of birds ever recorded on a Santa Barbara CBC.  For once, Santa Barbara was No. 1 in the nation.

There probably will never be another time when so many good birders, many of them living in Southern California, were finding out SO MUCH about how birds could be identified in the field.  It really was cutting edge stuff.  Jan Hamber, condor biologist at the Museum of Natural History, used to refer to them generally as “the young Turks”.  She meant birders like Paul Lehman, Jon Dunn (who’d recently moved to Santa Barbara), and Louis Bevier and Richard Webster who both grew up here.

I have to admit I was pretty swept away by all this.  My passion for birding led me to explore the Cuyama Valley, the agricultural fields west of Santa Maria, the Antelope Valley, the Santa Clara River estuary, the San Rafael Mountains, and all sorts of places I would never have known if this sense of discovery and excitement hadn’t been in the air.

In those days before the internet, the chief means of communication among birders was the telephone (of course, no cell phones, so the nearest pay phone became an essential tool of the field birder).  Whenever the phone rang at my house, it could be news of a rare bird, especially during fall migration.  When a Yellow-billed Loon (then a first county record and a terrific rarity in Southern California) was found swimming off Goleta Pier, the phone rang as I was cooking dinner for the family.  My hands a mess from the casserole or meatloaf I was preparing, I answered the phone.  Big mistake.

It was Paul.  He and Jon and Louis were with him and they insisted I drop everything and rush out there to see this bird.  “You guys, I can’t.  I’m in the middle of cooking DINNER!”  I said.  Silence.  Then, “Joan, don’t be stupid!  I’LL come cook your dinner”, says one of the three. “You’ve GOT to see this bird!”  Of course I didn’t go.  I couldn’t.  But I was lucky, the loon stayed for a couple of months before it expired – alas, and was collected by the Museum of Natural History.

And so it went.  One marvelous rarity after another, as I built my list around my home patch, the county I’d rather be birding than anywhere else.  The long distance chase was not for me.  I was good for any target bird where the trip lasted just long enough for me to be home to cook dinner.  The kids were used to hurried breakfasts and sack lunches, but dinner was sacrosanct.

I learned about gulls, shorebirds, and fall warblers.  I saw Rufous-necked Stint, Great-crested and Brown-crested Flycatchers, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and most of the vagrant warblers.  My head was spinning and I devoured every scrap I could hold about birds, birds, birds.

Many other friends shared my passion for birding in those days:  Larry Ballard, Karen Bridgers, Carol Goodell, Shawneen Finnegan, Joan and George Hardie, Barbara Millett, Guy Tingos, Tom Wurster, to name a few. I close with my favorite birding story of all time:  one that many of us -- Paul Lehman, Brad Schram, Karen Bridger's, and myself – have written about elsewhere.

It was September 16, 1984 and Paul had just found what he believed to be a Little Curlew in the irrigated fields west of Santa Maria.  This petite curlew – a first New World record at the time! – had been seen in late afternoon.  So, of course, we all wanted to dash up there the next day.  Thankfully, Karen Bridgers waited for me, because I had a bird class to teach, and I was going crazy wanting to get away and chase that curlew. Worse yet, the Little Curlew had not been seen again that morning, despite birders combing every possible flooded field in the area.

Karen and I drove up in her car, and we rendezvoused with a crowd of very grumpy birders – all staring disconsolately into a grassy field. It was hot, it was noon, and nobody had refound the Little Curlew.  Birders all over the country were waiting to get the news, because they were making plans to fly in and see this rare Siberian visitor.

Realizing that we might as well go exploring around on our own, Karen and I drove off.  We picked a likely looking field somewhere off Betteravia Rd., parked the car, and I took the scope.  We started walking along the shoulder of the road, searching for a place to set up the scope and scan a nearby field.  Huge trucks with loads of broccoli and lettuce came hurtling by. There were plenty of pick-up trucks, too, and everybody looked at us as though we were crazy.

But one of the trucks slowed, then stopped, then backed up. Was this an axe-murderer or a friend? “What are you two looking for?” said a friendly man with a nice smile. “Curlews”, we said, not even thinking he’d know what a curlew was. “There’s a rare one, a smaller one, that we’re searching for,” we said. “Well, come on!  Hop in the back of the truck. I’ve got lots of curlews on my property around the corner, and I’ll take you back to your car” said the farmer. We looked at each other.  What had we got to lose? We climbed up into the flat bed of the pick-up, held on tightly, and the farmer, Mr. Mahoney, took us a half-mile down the road to our car.  We then followed him to an old wooden gate, where a dirt track led through the middle of a green pasture. “There.  Look at all the curlews!” he said proudly, gesturing towards a large flock of Whimbrels. There they were.  Many, many Whimbrels and among them, one that was just slightly smaller with a delicate, straighter bill. The Little Curlew! I got out the field guide and said, “No it can’t be, and Karen said, yes it IS!” We were elated! We rushed back to tell the other birders, and the rest is history……

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