Posted by: James Wapotich | October 20, 2012

Trail Quest: Birding with Joan Easton Lentz

There are a variety of ways one can connect with the natural history of our region, whether it’s learning about the local plants or geology, or hiking the trails, however each of those generally require getting out in the field. Birding is one of the few natural history activities that one can literally do from their backyard or a nearby park, and it’s that availability that makes birding so exciting to a lot of people.

In Santa Barbara we’re fortunate to be in a very active birding location. Santa Barbara is along the coast which gives us seabirds, shorebirds and land birds to choose from and we’re also along the Pacific Coast flyway, and so were exposed to migratory birds as well. The county is at the intersection of two bioregions, the North Coast bioregion with its cooler climate and the South Coast Bioregion with more of an affinity to Baja California. Plus we have a variety of habitats from shore to coastal plain all the way to the high mountains all of which adds to the number of birds we can see.

And if that wasn’t reason enough to get one curious about the birds in our local area, we’re also blessed with a number of great birding resources. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has a comprehensive ornithology section, Karen Bridger’s Bird Watch column, featured every Wednesday in the News-Press, is like an insiders guide to birding here locally, the Santa Barbara Audubon Chapter host birdwalks and field trips several times a month, and our own local bird expert, Joan Easton Lentz, regularly offers a class on birds through Santa Barbara City College’s Continuing Education or Adult Ed program.

An established author, Ms. Lentz has written several books on birding. She is the co-author of Birdwatching: A Guide for Beginners, and the author of Great Birding Trips of the West, which highlights various birding “hot spots” throughout the western United States, how to get there and what to see. Her most recent book, Introduction to Birds of the Southern California Coast, is a comprehensive overview, complete with pictures, of the birds along our coast. Ms. Lentz is also a research associate with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

But the great thing about Ms. Lentz is that her classes are fun, she has an enthusiasm for birding that is magnetic and her knowledge about the different species, what the birds are doing and why, adds a depth to the class that makes for a satisfying experience of being outdoors and feeling a sense of connection with the natural world.

Her class, Birds of the Santa Barbara Region, meets on Wednesday mornings from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., and makes use of the many open spaces and preserves available to us in Santa Barbara. A second class is also offered Monday mornings from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. and is led by Rebecca Coulter.

A Santa Barbara native, Ms. Lentz grew up connected to the outdoors, and would often ride on her bike over to the Museum of Natural History to learn more about the natural world as a kid, and would go on backpacking with trips with her father into the Santa Barbara Backcountry. Ms. Lentz became interested in birding in the 1970s and has been at it ever since.

“What better place then in Santa Barbara to see birds, if you stay here long enough, it seems that every bird seen in California will drop by at some point.” Ms. Lentz told the News-Press. Case and point Ms. Lentz’s county list includes 441 different species.

Avid birders often talk about their life lists, which is all the different birds they’ve seen so far, but another compelling list is one’s county list, which is all the different birds they’ve seen in their home county, in this case Santa Barbara County. And what makes such a list interesting is that it is in essence a lens through which one can appreciate the variety of birds that can be seen here locally including what are called “vagrants”.

Vagrants are birds that have gotten themselves lost or are off course, and instead of heading south for example during their annual migration, have headed west and either pass through or stop in Santa Barbara County.

“Probably the rarest bird I’ve seen in my life was the little curlew, a vagrant bird from Siberia, it had crossed the Bering Sea and come down our coast instead of going down to Indonesia, and was found in a flooded field in Santa Maria.” The little curlew is one of the birds on Ms. Lentz’s growing county list.

This year’s rare bird sighting was a white ibis from Baja California in September that was seen on a farm in Carpinteria, the sighting was the first for Santa Barbara County.

For beginners wanting to get started in birding Ms. Lentz recommends places like Lake Los Carneros, which offers both a water source that draws in different birds as well as the birds associated with the area. Another great location is Coal Oil Point Reserve for the same reasons. The best to time go birding as a beginner is during the winter as that’s when there are the greatest number of birds in Santa Barbara.

For those wanting to see some of the rarer birds, places like Ellwood Open Space near the Coronado Preserve are good because they’re along the coast, have fresh water nearby and a number of trees. And the best time to go is in the fall when more birds are on the move and the likelihood of seeing a rare bird who’s flown off course increases.

In general the best time of day to go is in the mornings before 10:00 a.m, and the best types of days are when it’s overcast as the birds are active longer, and of course days with less wind make it easier to spot the birds when the trees and brush aren’t swaying.

Ms. Lentz also recommends a good set of binoculars as a way of seeing much more of what’s going on, and to always bring along a field guide, to help connect what you’re seeing, with a specific bird. A book on birds of Western North America can be sometimes be more helpful for beginner’s than a book on all the birds of North America.

Another useful resource is the checklist of Birds of Santa Barbara County, that she helped create, and is available at Chaucer’s Bookstore, which gives an overview of the different birds one is likely to see in Santa Barbara County, to help narrow down the field of what one might be looking at.

Ms. Lentz is currently completing her newest book, which is on the natural history of our area, entitled A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region. The book covers from southern San Luis Obispo County down to the Santa Clara Valley in Ventura County, as far inland as Mt. Pinos and out to and including the Channel Islands. The book is designed to help the lay person easily connect with the rich natural history that surrounds us and is unique in that it focuses on the natural history of specifically our local region.

The class, Birds of the Santa Barbara Region, is offered through Santa Barbara City College’s Continuing Education, and the next session of starts January 2013.

This article originally appeared in section A of the October 20th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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