Southern California Oasis is a Birdwatcher’s Paradise

San Jacinto Wildlife Area in Southern California

My father wakes me at 6:15am with a tentative knock on the bedroom door. My last memory is dozing off, the satisfaction of last night’s rich Thanksgiving dinner still warm in my belly. Kevin and I are at the ranch for the holiday weekend; I crawl over his sleeping frame, pull on my warmest clothing and step out into the brisk air. Dad is ready at the car and he chuckles at my quiet morning demeanor.

We drive some distance through craggy brown mountains that look like crumpled tinfoil—the landscape is barren save for a bit of brush that has turned dry and fragile from winter’s breath. Soon we arrive at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area; an unassuming sign marks an open wire gate and we slip our car through. Ahead, thick green reeds appear utterly lost in the desert. They sway, whispering a single word. “Water.”

Black-shouldered kite

As we enter this delicious oasis hidden among the sun-baked hills, we suddenly begin spotting birds in every direction. We pass a pond and a hundred American coots lift off the waterway, tiptoeing along the surface to stay awing. A blue-winged teal flashes us with a broad patch of powder blue feathers as he flaps through the picturesque scene. And just as we park and get out to walk, a kestrel (“sparrow hawk”) dips in front of the car to catch a meal.

Dad and I whirl in delight, tapping one another on the shoulder and silently pointing to various discoveries. He finds a lovely Snowy egret standing on the shore, poking at its own reflection. I, too, see a white bird. But this one is a bird of prey, good-sized, perched high in tree. I swing camera to eye. It’s a White-tailed kite, eyes like midnight.

Hiking a back trail, Dad and I chat about our mutual love of nature and I am excited to learn that he used to keep a list of all the bird species he’d seen since boyhood. Of course I already know I’m a chip off the ol’ block, maybe even a naturalist by genetic design.

Black phoebe and reflection

We stop to photograph a sweet little Black phoebe, a flycatcher of sorts, swooping to capture bugs off the smooth water, and when we turn we find a tiny Anna’s hummingbird among the leaves, whose head keeps flashing magenta.

At last this watery world seems to be quieting for the day, so we head back to the car and roll toward the gate. Suddenly we spy an enormous cinnamon colored bird painting the horizon, its wingbeats slow and laborious. What is it? As we drive closer, the giant turns away, showing us the white bar across its tail feathers. Amazing! A Golden eagle sliding across the sky in winged glory, the lush foliage stretching to touch its feet.

Like Dad’s childhood list, I write down all that we’ve seen—warblers, ibis, ducks, blackbirds, pipits… about 25 species in just two hours—a successful day of bird watching by any standard. And as we exit the gate I feel like I’m leaving Disney Land. I find myself looking back over my shoulder, straining to keep focus on three Red-tailed hawks swirling overhead as though they are on an amusement park ride, hoping my daddy will bring me back to this magical place again.

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