When it is the first day of a new year and you are a birder and you have nothing you have to do all morning long you better believe you are out birding.  My biggest problem when this situation was presented to me on 1 January 2011 was figuring out which of Orange County’s marvelous birding spots to bird.*  After all, Orange County, California, has habitat that ranges from offshore to small mountains so the amount of choices available were a bit overwhelming.  I decided to go with what I know and birded the middle ground, with San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and the amazing estuary, Upper Newport Bay, as my choice birding destinations.  Either spot could have taken the entire morning but I figured that by hitting each location with surgical birding strikes I could maximize birding potential and come out with a morning absolutely chock full o’ birds!  And was I ever proven right!

The picture above shows what the world looked like when I left the house in Yorba Linda before dawn.  As I loaded my backpack and scope into the truck a Mourning Dove cruised past just over my head, an unavoidable first bird of the year.  I cursed silently to myself, as I had been hoping for a western bird as my first bird of the year, but when I got out over the freeway and saw flocks of Rock Pigeons wheeling in the predawn light I apologized to the Mourning Dove.  It might not be a western bird but it sure beats Rock Pigeons!  I drove on three different freeways in the dark of predawn, past palm trees and Del Tacos, and made my way through the strange world that is southern California to the marvelous place that is the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary.  I grabbed my gear, remembered as I was walking away from my brother-in-law’s truck to lock it, and was birding!

American Avocet Recurvirostra americana

The speed with which my year list grew in my first couple hours of birding was absolutely absurd.  Dabbling ducks, herons, shorebirds, icterids, sparrows, EVERYTHING WAS NEW!  I was even excited when I saw my first starlings of 2011!  I couldn’t decide if I should try to cover as much ground as possible to see as many species as I could or stay where I already had birds in front of me so I could photograph them in the morning light.  I ended up doing a little of each and managed to not only see lots of birds but also get quite a few decent pictures, as well as some, well, artsy ones?

sunlight through fog at San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary above and a bad picture of Hooded Mergansers Lophodytes cucullatus, a good bird for southern California , below

Though the Hooded Mergansers above were nice birds neither they nor pretty sunlight cutting through the fog were why I was birding in southern California.  After all, I can see that kind of stuff in New York.  No, I was in southern California looking for birds I can’t see back home like, say, Bushtits!

female Bushtit Psaltriparus minimus (note the pale iris) above, male below

If ever a bird existed that could make the most cold-hearted human smile it would be the Bushtit.  They travel in flocks, constantly calling, a horde of fluffballs that strikes fear into the hearts of minute invertebrates everywhere.  Because, as you can see in the shot above, a flock of Bushtits will give trees or bushes the most thorough going-over that it is possible for a flock of five-gram birds to give.  While they are adorable, cute, and maybe even twee, they would be horribly frightening if they were twice our size and bent on eating us.  In fact, I have a recurring nightmare in which I am chased by a pair of twelve-foot tall Bushtits with voices like Richard Simmons and Jack Nicholson and it is truly frightening.

But I digress from the point of this post which is, of course, to tell the tale of my birding day on the first day of the new year, 2011.  So, yeah, Bushtits.  And, of course, there were hummingbirds, hummingbirds that we east coast birders don’t often get to see but get very excited about when we do.  Anna’s Hummingbirds are the most common in southern California but there are also plenty of Allen’s Hummingbirds around if you look, and, of course, I did.

Allen’s Hummingbird Selasphorus sasin

Long story short: by the time I was headed back to the truck I had netted myself a sweet list of 59 species to start the year.  Then I reached the truck and realized that the doors wouldn’t open when I pressed the unlock button on the key fob.  Then I realized that the doors wouldn’t open because, in my haste to exit the truck and get birding I had managed to leave the lights on, which had drained the truck’s battery.  I was sure someone would give me a jump, if I could tear a birder from their binoculars long enough to get them to do it, but how was I going to get the truck open so I could get the hood up?  I was stuck.  Then I remembered that attached to the key fob was, of course, an actual key, which could also be used to access the interior of the truck.  I am, as you can tell, a genius.  When I opened the truck I decided to see if it would start, and voila, it did!  Disaster averted, I made my way to my next birding stop, which you will have to come back to read about because I have gone on long enough already…

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Polioptila caerulea

*Well, that and recovering from the New Year’s Eve hangover…

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.