Birds on the Brain at Bird Fest

SoCal hawks, titmouses, thrushes, warblers, woodpeckers are the rock stars at the first ever Bird Fest held Oct. 18 at the Santa Monica Mountains Interagency Visitor’s Center at King Gillette Ranch, in Calabasas abourt 5 minutes off the 101 freeway.

Bird-related workshops, live bird presentations (including a local rare albino raven), bird feeding crafts and a bird photography exhibit will fill the bucolic grounds of the former disposal razor ranch that now houses the Santa Monica Mountains Interagency Visitor Center.  Representatives from various Audubon Society chapters, International Bird Rescue, Heal the Bay, California Wildlife Center and others will also be hand.

What you get when you invent disposable razor blades.
This is what you get when you invent disposable razor blades.

Oh, did we mention bird walks?  Lace ‘em up and bring your binocs…or use one from the park service. This is the heart of Bird Fest and there are many to choose from throughout the day.

Beginning birders as well as old pros will hit the surrounding trails with a guide in search of songs that will (fingers crossed) lead to bird sightings.

After all, bird watching is just as much bird LISTENING as it is viewing. Patience and good ears are necessary birding attributes. Having the Sibley Bird Book or App also helps.

“Birds like to discover and hang out in eco-tones, little palettes of land and buildings that appeal to them,” says Anthony Bevilacqua, park ranger and regular birder who will be leading one walk at BirdFest. “Here at King Gillette, there are so many diverse micro-environments with structures, trees, canopies and buildings.”  A botanical center and many native plants and trees are also part of that natural palette.

Bevilacqua always brings his scope on bird walks. “When beginners see their first bird in it, it’s the ‘OOOOOOhhh’ moment,” he says. “Then you have them hooked.” Today he picks up the unmistakable call of the acorn woodpecker that’s claimed a particular tree branch.

Don't worry. Woodpeckers have plenty of cranium protection allowing them to hammer away  on trees without affect.
Don’t worry. Woodpeckers have plenty of cranium protection for tree hammering.

A white breasted nuthatch flitters among a small bush, scrub jays dart back and forth with acorns at a nearby California live oak, and further up the path, a fox sparrow explores a wooden picnic table.

Many songbirds have just arrived from Northern California and the Sierra Mountains, ready to take in the warm SoCal winters in style. The fall migration is when, according to Bevilacqua, “you can just about see any kind of bird fly through here. You really never know what you will see.”

He spies with glee a yellow-rumped warbler and calls out to it, “I’ve missed you!” as the bird continues its preening and peering.

Juncos sift through the loose dirt alongside a California spotted towhee in search of bugs. Their brown-ness blends in so well with the shaded dirt patch that they melt into the landscape.

Birds like this junco aren't always found up in the trees.
Birds like this junco aren’t always found up in the trees.

Despite the drought, plants and trees are faring remarkably well here at King Gillette. Sure, Stokes Creek is bone dry but there is water in the ponds for mallards to swim and enjoy. Nearby Malibu Creek is still flowing…somewhat.

Overall, it’s an easy walk around the peaceful ranch lands – hard to imagine that only a few miles up the road is Calabasas, the 101 Freeway and civilization. Bevilacqua points out that many birds that folks will see on Bird Fest walks are birds that are probably around SoCal’s other green spaces, parks, and even backyards. What you learn and see here, he says, you can replicate elsewhere.

The relatively new visitor center –marvelously re-purposed in a reclaimed horse stable and well worth a visit  – is also one of those eco-tones. Bevilacqua points to the tower where cliff swallows have built their mud nests.

Empty mud nests -- under the tower awning -- waiting for swallow babies.
Empty mud nests — under the tower awning — waiting for swallow babies.

Just then, an impressive Cooper’s hawk lands, ninja-like with purpose and strength, on a large tree branch and eyes the bird watching party. “It’s after the songbirds,” says Bevilacqua. “Plenty to pick from around here.” Birders and raptor eye each other for seconds before the hawk flaps up and away, soaring over the canopies. Huh, ain’t that  just like a rock star.

Bird Fest takes place from 9:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. (with early bird walk at 9 a.m.) on October 18 at the Santa Monica Mountains Interagency Visitor’s Center at King Gillette Ranch, 26876 Mulholland Drive, Calabasas 91302. Bird crafts, workshops, photography and bird walks for all. Call (805) 370-2302  or email for more information. All events are free. Picnic tables on the grounds and food vendors will also be on site.

Ready for a close-up on Bird Fest: a spotted towhee.
Ready for a close-up on Bird Fest: a spotted towhee.

— by Brenda Rees
All photos by Martha Benedict