Birds are the only wild animals we typically encounter on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s easy to ignore geese migrating overhead, or seagulls and pigeons eating scraps on restaurant patios. Observing them more closely reveals a parallel world of immense beauty and wonder.
The wide variety of bird species in Ventura County provides some of the best bird-watching in the nation. Diverse habitats range from sandy, dune-covered beaches and rugged islands to high-elevation pine forests. Rare and charismatic birds live here, including enormous California condors and deep -blue Santa Cruz Island scrub jays.
Numerous opportunities are available for anyone interested in studying birds more closely, or volunteering in ways that contribute to their survival.
The Ventura Audubon Society includes hundreds of members who enjoy bird-watching field trips. It also teams up with the National Audubon Society for the Christmas Bird Count, America’s longest-running citizen science project.
Wildlife rescue groups devoted to rehabilitating sick and injured birds also need lots of help. The Ojai Raptor Center stages open houses twice a year to help people understand the needs of these powerful birds of prey.
Scientists with Channel Islands National Park and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also rely extensively on volunteers. They help with critical research, habitat restoration and education programs related to birds listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Unfortunately, some local species have been lost forever in recent decades. The Santa Barbara Island song sparrow was endemic to the small island, living nowhere else on earth. The natural nesting habitat it relied on was degraded after the introduction of farming and sheep grazing about a century ago. Arrival of non-native predators like cats also contributed to its demise. A 1959 wildfire wiped out remaining habitat, and the species was officially declared extinct in 1983.
Other more fortunate endangered and threatened birds have relied on human intervention to halt their decline. Native-plant restoration, captive breeding programs and removal of non-native animals from sensitive habitats have proven to be effective strategies.
Endangered California condors have rebounded in recent years. Threatened western snowy plovers are closely monitored by volunteers at Oxnard’s Ormond Beach, offering the tiny shorebirds better odds of survival. Brown pelicans that nest on the Channel Islands were removed from the endangered species list in 2009.
Successful efforts to reintroduce bald eagles to the Channel Islands led to installation of Internet nest cams that provide enjoyment to people from every corner of the globe.
The endangered songbird least Bell’s vireo could also be making a comeback along the Santa Clara River thanks to habitat rehabilitation efforts.
About two dozen volunteers spent a rainy Sunday in early spring working on native plant restoration at the Hedrick Ranch Nature Area that should benefit the melodic olive-gray birds. The 220-acre preserve sits along the southern banks of the Santa Clara River, east of Santa Paula. It’s partly overgrown with invasive, bamboolike Arundo donax, which crowds out native plants.
Researchers from UC, Santa Barbara, team up with nonprofit groups, including the Audubon Society and Friends of the Santa Clara River, to manage the preserve. Students from local schools also lend a hand restoring native riparian habitat that birds need in order to thrive.
Sandy Hedrick has been active with the Ventura Audubon Society for decades and serves as Conservation Committee chairperson. His grandfather starting farming in the 1940s on the land now set aside for conservation, and it was used for cattle grazing into the 1990s. Besides restoring the preserve bearing his family name, he’s worked extensively to protect western snowy plovers and least terns at Ormond Beach.
Hedrick says volunteers help birds and also take away something special for themselves. “That’s a very personal thing. I’m sure everyone gets their own satisfaction of being out here in nature and doing something positive to help keep the proper balance of man and nature in our environment here,” said Hedrick. “I think a big part of it is that it brings you out here and gives you purpose.”
Ventura Audubon Society Program Committee Chairwoman Debby Burns became fascinated by red-shouldered hawks that flew over Santa Paula High School when she taught there before retiring. Burns says that there are many reasons why birds captivate people.
“They’re cute for one thing. Everyone has a little flock in their back yard, and maybe they put seed out, and they watch and get to know individual birds,” said Burns. “I think they’re an indicator that we do have wildlife left. It’s really important that people know about birds and other wildlife, because it’s very much in danger.”
Channel Islands National Park has some of the richest bird habitat anywhere on the planet. Scientists say 387 bird species live on the islands or visit, and 11 of those are endemic.
Park spokesperson Yvonne Menard says the islands are critical breeding habitat. “I don’t think people realize that over 95 percent of the seabirds they see along the Southern California coast rely upon the Channel Islands for breeding, roosting and nesting habitat. So they’re essential to the survival of the seabirds,” said Menard.
Recovery efforts involving an interesting seabird species called Scripps’s murrelet proved successful in recent years. The small diving birds spend most of their lives in the ocean, but come ashore on the Channel Islands during nesting season.
Chicks hatch with a fuzzy coat of down feathers, and jump or tumble into the ocean from cliff-side nests when they are only two days old. Scripps’s murrelets propel themselves underwater in search of prey by flapping their wings, unlike other diving birds that utilize webbed feet. They travel vast distances, covering waters all the way from Baja Mexico to British Columbia.
Federal officials added the species to the Endangered Species Act candidate list during 2004 after habitat loss and non-native predators, including black rats, caused population declines.
Park Service Wildlife Biologist David Mazurkiewicz led the proactive conservation measures. He says the islands are now more ecologically balanced, thanks to the reversal of changes brought about by historic ranching practices.
“Species like Scripps’s murrelet traditionally used native perennial shrub cover, which was removed during the ranching era. One aspect is restoring that native cover, and also beating back some of the non-native species,” said Mazurkiewicz.
When a decision was made to remove Scripps’s murrelet from the Endangered Species Act candidate list last September, Mazurkiewicz was thrilled.
“It feels good. For me it’s sort of where the tires meet the road, and you’re actually able to do a management action and see that outcome come to fruition,” said Mazurkiewicz. “So it feels like the pieces can get put back together to some degree. It does provide a good element of hope.”
Ventura County’s tourism economy also benefits from growing interest in birds. Serious birders travel here from across the globe to view species like the endemic Santa Cruz Island scrub jay.
Channel Islands National Park concessionaire Island Packers Cruises offers special trips for devoted birders a few times a year. They travel far out into the open ocean, searching for birds that can only be found there.
Island Packers Co-owner Cherryl Connally says demand for trips geared specifically for birders is growing, even though they can require enduring a long and choppy boat ride.
“We have pelagic birding trips that seem to be getting more and more popular as people want to go out for a full day to go birding,” said Connally. “Our crew and our bird naturalist are helping the customer so they can identify special birds. A lot of birders like to check them off their lists. We also stop at Prisoners Harbor for a quick hike to see the Santa Cruz Island scrub jay as well.”
Birders are also noticing species that have rarely been seen around the islands before, possibly due to rising water temperatures. “As the ocean is changing and the world is changing, we’re having more and more unusual sightings here, like albatross. The blue-footed booby is just adorable to see out there. It’s just very unique and special to see something like that,” said Connally.
Ventura County is home to another major draw for birders and scientists, the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, sometimes called the Camarillo Bird Museum. People are often surprised to learn that the world’s largest collection of bird eggs is in Camarillo. Curators and volunteers also safeguard extensive collections of intricate nests and colorful bird study skins. Even extinct birds are represented. Ornithologists travel from all over the world to study the collections.
The greatest bird recovery success story involves California condors. The wide-ranging birds with wingspans up to 9 feet play an important role in the ecosystem since they’re scavengers and eat dead animals. Condors were far more plentiful a few hundred years back. It was common to see dozens on a beach feasting on marine mammals, including plentiful sea otters that were later hunted nearly to extinction.
The California Condor Recovery Program is managed out of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife office in Ventura where it oversees two condor refuges. Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge is north of Fillmore, and the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge is close to the northern Ventura County line near Maricopa.
Wildlife biologist Joseph Brandt works closely with the giant birds, and his job requires rappelling down steep cliffs to check the viability of eggs.
Brandt says that in addition to dwindling food supplies for condors after the arrival of European settlers, other things people did contributed to their decline.
“They became much more susceptible to other human-caused factors like outright persecution. People would just shoot condors when they saw them because they’re a big thing in the sky and that’s what people did back then. Also egg collection, and other issues like DDT and lead poisoning,” said Brandt. “At its low point there were only 22 condors in the world, so that’s as close to extinction as you can get.”
When the population dropped that low during 1987, all the condors remaining in the wild were trapped and placed in a captive breeding program. Releases began in 1992, and since then the population has risen steadily; 446 existed by the end of last year with more than half soaring free in the wild.
The program costs taxpayers $3 million a year, and Brandt believes the expense is worth it. “Condors are the largest land bird in North America. To call a condor just some other bird is like calling the Grand Canyon just some canyon,” said Brandt.
Efforts of volunteers are critical to the condor recovery mission. They donate about 2,000 hours of their time every year, and assist with monitoring condor nests in rugged wilderness areas.
“They’re kind of the eyes, and the first line of identifying when there are problems with the nests. So if one of our observers notices something going wrong with the nest, we can take action to thwart that nest failure,” said Brandt.
Encountering a condor in the wild is an amazing experience. It can be a challenge to find them, but there are ways to improve the odds. Brandt says that it’s exciting to see them while exploring deep in the wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.
“The best way to see condors is to get out into the backcountry. And as many birders will say, be patient. They are wild. They’re not just going to come to you,” said Brandt.
It’s also possible to see condors from a public road that runs through Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. “There’s a couple of overlooks, so if you park there and spend the morning, there’s a good chance you’ll see condors soaring in the distance. Other good places are the Grand Canyon and Big Sur,” said Brandt.
Friends of California Condors Wild and Free is a charity active in conservation efforts. Supporters spread awareness by operating educational booths at community events.
It recently sponsored a celebration at Ojai’s Libbey Park, An Evening With Condors & Friends. It honored a Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History condor biologist who conducted critical research in the 1970s and 1980s. Janet Hamber, 87, searched for clues to help determine what was causing the population to plummet severely. Learning about condor biology and behavior laid the groundwork for the recovery program.
Hamber was recognized for her contributions to condors and was also named a Trailblazer for Women in Science.
She was modest when asked about all the accolades she receives, now that the recovery program has come so far. “I had so many people who worked with me. I had hundreds of volunteers. And so to single me out as the one who did all the work is really not true. I am the recipient of all their good work as well,” said Hamber.
She’s happy to see the success of the efforts to help condors thrive. Hamber is also hopeful that people will continue to recognize the value of the ongoing work, since steep budget cuts to federal agencies working on conservation have been proposed.
“The main thing that I hope for is that the government and the people will still be interested, and want to protect endangered species,” said Hamber. “They bring a whole sense of completeness to an area or habitat. To lose them is like losing a piece of our history. I’m a little worried about some of the laws and the funding, as to whether it will continue on.”
Area nature conservation nonprofits could always use your support. Check out what they do and how you can help.
Friends of California Condors Wild and Free at www.friendsofcondors.org
Friends of California Condors Wild and Free is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization with the mission to enhance public awareness of the endangered California condor and ensure that it is protected, healthy and free. This is done in collaboration with the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex and other organizations.
Friends of the Santa Clara River at www.fscr.org
Friends of the Santa Clara River are volunteers working to restore habitat on properties owned by The Nature Conservancy along the Santa Clara River, as well as at the Hedrick Ranch Nature Area.
Ojai Raptor Center at www.ojairaptorcenter.org
The Ojai Raptor Center 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to the rescue, rehabilitation and release of birds of prey and other wildlife, and to providing educational programs about wildlife and our shared environment.
Ventura Audubon Society at www.venturaaudubon.org
The mission of the Ventura Audubon Society is to promote at the local level, by education and action, the protection and restoration of bird populations and wildlife habitat for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biodiversity.
The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, aka The Camarillo Bird Museum, at www.wfvz.org
The Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology expands upon its history of promoting the understanding and conservation of birds through four primary programs of specimen acquisition and preservation, education, information-sharing and field- and collections-based research
PLUS: SATURDAY, May 20, BIRD MUSEUM SPRING OPEN HOUSE 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Explore the museum’s exhibits along with hands-on egg blowing, nest building and other events. $5-10. Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, 439 Calle San Pablo, Camarillo.