Where to Find Southern California's Beautiful Birds
Many people, even those living in Southern California, imagine this area to be mostly cityscape. Generally people are somewhat aware of the beaches, and mountain ranges that sideline the coast. However, they often miss a group of secret treasures found throughout the southern portion of the state. These hidden jewels are known as wetlands. The word wetland is in most people's vocabularies. However, if you ask for the definition of the word itself, you may get some funny answers.
Bolsa Chica. Wetland habitat with mudflats pickleweed and foraging birds. (Can you find both birds?)
While people have a general idea that these are semi-wetted areas near the beach, they rarely know the specifics as to what makes these environments so special. The wetland itself makes up a large area generally around the mouths of rivers, as they complete their journey from mountain to sea. Here, the freshwater that runs down from snowmelt or rain, meets the incoming tide from the ocean.
The deeper section of Bolsa Chica's wetland habitat, where the fresh and salt water mix.
The saltwater and freshwater mix, and create what is known as brackish water. The term brackish may not sound glorious, but I assure you, its potential truly is. These wetland areas often feature lagoons, where most of the fresh and saltwater mixing occurs. The swirling of waters creates unique environments that can only exist here, and provide opportunities for special and rare life forms.
Snowy Egret capitalizing on the ecosystem created by the lagoon at Bolsa Chica
Starting from the very bottom of the food chain, the brackish water allows for a variety of specialized plants, algae, and phytoplankton to thrive. These rare flora are highly adapted and evolved to live in this unique environment. Since these flora are found in abundance here, many specialized creatures live amongst them, and feed off of them. Phytoplankton, which are microscopic plants, sometimes consisting of but one cell, provide food for regular plankton. Plankton can also be microscopic, however they are animals rather than plants.
Underwater view of phytoplankton and plankton, most of the little dots are individual organisms.
The microscopic plankton, feeding on the phytoplankton, provide an abundance of food for a number of other creatures. The tiniest fish, clams, and other mollusks thrive off these tiny food items that can really only be found here in the wetlands. These little mollusks, and fish, then in turn provide food to larger, and more glorious creatures, that us humans love to observe.
Some tasty mollusks living in the mudflats.
The magic of wetlands doesn’t just end there, because they are constantly changing due to how much water is flowing down from the river, and how much water is flowing in from the tides. The change in water levels causes the wetlands to experience a cycle of draining and filling, which creates even more unique habitats and opportunities.
Hightide view of Bolsa Chica.
During a higher tide the wetlands can be full of water up to the scrub-like plants on the edge, and the wetland can appear like a lake. However, as the tide slowly drains, as it does twice a day, a thick muck appears. It is dotted with little holes, and soon thousands of four-toed footprints scour the muck. Birds with specialized long legs, and long beaks come to pry mollusks out of their little holes in the mud.
Mollusk and insect hunting specialists taking advantage of the low tide feeding opportunities.
Their long legs allow the birds to stand and maneuver in this thick sludge that you or I would sink deep into. Their long beaks allow them to dig around in the muck for tasty shelled creatures that can only be accessed at the right tide. These birds time their feeding schedule to that of the tides.
Using his long beak and long legs to capture prey.
Another feature of the wetlands is that this constant changing of water levels means wetlands are generally fairly shallow, or at least have lots of low water areas. They also can be accessed by fish swimming down from the river, or up from the sea. Because of this unique habitat, many fish breed here and the wetlands become a haven for baby fish of all sorts.
Fish swimming in Bolsa Chica.
While a haven of sorts, there are many birds that are adapted just for this case. Unfortunately for the baby fish, these birds have long craning necks, and sharp sleek beaks that can pluck hundreds of baby fish right out of the water. It may be sad but the cycle is important. Some of the fish survive and foster the next generation, and without them, the birds wouldn’t be able to persist.
Beak and neck specialized to snag unlucky fish right out of the water.
All these rare and unique features of the wetlands, allow for an incredible variety of wildlife to thrive, and to be enjoyed by us. However, over 90% of California's historic wetlands have been destroyed due to human development. So I encourage you to go see, enjoy, and protect what we have left.
Join our presentation on Birds of the Wetlands, to learn more about what fantastic flying beasts we have, and to learn where you can go to see some of these creatures yourself! Signup link is here:
Photos by Isaac Yelchin and Alex Havasi
Isaac Yelchin is foremost a herpetologist. He studies lizards, frogs, newts, and the like. Specifically, he spends all day and night thinking about what it is like to be an animal. What are the animals thinking about? What is their perspective? When he should be working, he sits and stares at his pet lizard asking himself these questions.