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A Rude Awakening From A Large-billed Sparrow

Sora, Bolsa Chica, CA, 1 Jan 2012 070

My childhood is being smothered by the fog of time. I recall a few key events; an Easter egg birthday cake; slicing through a sliding plain glass door (the days before safety glass); listening to the news of Sputnik while traveling to my grandmother’s for a holiday. Otherwise my childhood is an odd mingling of memory and myth, a featureless void punctuated by fragments of memories real and imagined.

I lost the inclination to loll in bed in childhood. I blame school and the teachers who brow-beat us into beating the bell (and detention) each morning. Who chose the odd hours that we were required to appear? Why not 8 instead of 7:50? What’s wrong with a round number? Is this part of socialization, training us to be prompt as well as productive little citizens?

My grandson, Woodrow, hasn’t lost that talent yet. Woodrow is 14, a splendid kid who will freely join me for a few hours of birding. I know, however, not to invite him for the dawn chorus. Woodrow can hibernate well into the afternoon if given the chance. The Christmas holidays offered him, as well as his brother, Hans, the perfect opportunity for practicing the skill of staying in bed for most of the day.

My wife and I flew to Redondo Beach to spend a few days with the family after Christmas. I knew that New Year’s Day presented my best opportunity for birding. The kids would sleep until God knows when, and I would be able to sneak out in the early morning hours to see a few birds.

Northern Pintails, Bolsa Chica, CA, 1 Jan 2012

Redondo is familiar birding turf for me, so we decided to drive south toward Huntington Beach and the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. I had seen Bolsa Chica from the Pacific Coast Highway before, but I had never taken the time to wander its various wetlands. The fog had lifted, and there could not have been a more picture-perfect day for birding.

Bolsa Chica is all about wetlands. The property has morphed from gun club to oil wells to housing development and now ecological reserve. In 2006 the state opened a passage to the Pacific for the first time since 1899. The birds have flocked to this remarkable restoration like bargain hunters to Black Friday at Walmart. On the day I visited there were tens of thousands of ducks, grebes, cormorants, shorebirds, gulls, and terns swarming in the wetlands and around the levees.

Bolsa Chica is only accessible from the levees that separate the various wetland cells, and the levees are open only to walkers and bikers. On New Year’s Day there were hundreds of people on the trails, many exercising themselves and their dogs but also a surprising number that were birding. I joined the crowd and lazily hiked the loop trail. Every few yards there were new birds to see and to photograph, and I spent hours photographing as many ducks and other water birds as I could for the archives.

Although Bolsa Chica is a wetland complex, there are also sage thickets and a few dying eucalyptus bordering the wetlands. White-crowned, Vesper, and Savannah Sparrows were easily seen pecking along the gravel trails that bordered the scrub. As I walked along one of the more lengthy levees, I noticed a sparrow poking through the rip-rap. I couldn’t identify the bird at first, so I quickly snapped a couple of photos. I left the bird thinking it might be a Song Sparrow, but I gave it little thought. I wanted to photograph ducks and grebes, and this odd sparrow didn’t fire my interest.

Eared Grebe, Bolsa Chica, CA, 1 Jan 2012 by Ted Lee Eubanks

Later that night, back in the hotel room, I scanned the day’s photographs and came across this sparrow again. Nothing rang a bell. Song Sparrow seemed in the ballpark, but the bird really didn’t look like a Song Sparrow. In truth, the bird didn’t look like any sparrow that I knew. I decided to take a chance with juvenile Song Sparrow, and I posted a photo that night on my Facebook page.

Nathan Swick saved the day and my rear. Nathan noticed the photograph and posted the following: “An odd bird. Might this be one of the ‘large-billed” Savannah Sparrows? I believe those can be found in SoCal.” Large-billed Savannah Sparrow? I vaguely remembered the bird existing, but I didn’t recall lucking into that one before. One year Bob Behrstock and I had discovered a new Savannah Sparrow nesting in Nuevo Leon, Mexico, and we had poured through the research at that time about Savannah systematics. I remembered little of it, only that a large-billed Savannah existed somewhere.

The Bolsa Chica bird looked nothing like a Savannah Sparrow, and I had been stumped. Where was the median stripe on the crown? Where were the streaks on the back? What about this immense bill?

Once back in Austin I searched the literature for additional information about the Large-billed Sparrow. I came across a paper in Condor from 1991 titled Mitochondrial DNA Variation and the Taxonomic Status of the Large-Billed Savannah by Robert M. Zink, Donna L. Dittmann, Steven W. Cardiff, and James D. Rising (The Condor, Vol. 93, No. 4 (Nov., 1991), pp. 1016-1019). In this paper the authors stated that “we suggest that morphological evidence and the level and pattern of mtDNA variation supports species status for rostratus…”

Willet, Bolsa Chica, CA, 1 Jan 2012

I continued with my literature search. I learned that the bird is limited to the Colorado River delta south to Sinaloa and Sonora. According to Garrett, “the breeding habitat of rostratus is specialized. It is nearly limited to open, low salt marsh vegetation, including grasses (Spartina, Distichlis), pickleweed (Salicornia spp.), and iodine bush (Allenrolfea spp.), around the mouth of the Colorado River and adjacent coastlines of the uppermost Gulf of California; less Large-billed Savannahs winter in southern California…”.

Salicornia? Spartina? Distichlis? This is more Seaside than Savannah Sparrow habitat. What gives with this oddity?

I then learned that this sparrow has been swatted about by the hand of man for decades. Begin with the damming of the Colordo River. According to Garrett, “Major dam building along the lower Colorado River began with the construction of Laguna Dam in 1907 and reached a peak with the completion of Hoover Dam in 1936, Parker and Imperial dams two years later, and Davis Dam in 1954 (Rosenberg et al. 1991). The period of steep decline of Large-billed Savannah Sparrows closely matched this dam-building era.”

The native marshes in southern California were drained, plowed, and paved as well (a cumulative loss of about 75% of historic salt marsh habitat in coastal southern California by 1970). Garrett notes that “the period of former abundance of Large-billed Savannah Sparrows in coastal towns and wharves in southern California preceded the extensive urbanization that has “sterilized” these beach areas.”

Drained. Dammed. Sterilized. I am so sick of these endings. The Large-billed Sparrow is a saltwater Savannah, a specialist driven to extinction’s edge by our unmatched ability to obliterate a landscape. For example, here is a synopsis of what I learned about the Colorado River delta (largely lifted from Wikipedia).

Snowy Egret 600, Bolsa Chica, CA, 1 Jan 2012 019
  • Until the early 20th century the Colorado River ran free from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado southwest into Mexico, where it flowed into the Gulf of California. Significant quantities of nourishing silt from throughout the Colorado River Basin were carried downstream, creating the vast Colorado River Delta.
  • Prior to the construction of major dams along its route, the Colorado River fed one of the largest desert estuaries in the world.
  • Because most of the river’s flow reached the delta at that time, its freshwater, silt, and nutrients helped create and sustain a complex system of estuarial wetlands.
  • The Colorado River delta’s vast riparian, freshwater, brackish, and tidal wetlands once covered 7,810 km² (1,930,000 acres).
  • Freshwater flows no longer reached the delta.
  • The loss of freshwater flows to the delta over the twentieth century has reduced delta wetlands to about 5 percent of their original extent.

Typically I don’t dwell on the past. I would rather be pissed than pessimistic. The story of the Large-billed Sparrow didn’t depress me, but it did stoke my fury. In California the victim is the large-billed sparrow. Along the upper Texas coast, my home turf, we lost the Houston Henslow’s Sparrow and Attwater’s Greater Prairie-Chicken is hanging on by its toenails because of the demise of tallgrass prairie.

What we have wasted on this planet, and what we have laid to waste, is villainous. I refuse to give our forefathers a pass because they didn’t know better. But if they didn’t, what’s our excuse? They drained, we frack. They dammed, we pave. What can we possibly say in our defense when our grandchildren call us to account?

Woodrow slept in. I finished my encounter with the Large-billed Sparrow. Woodrow and his friends will eventually awaken to find the mess we have left them. Our progeny will know that the globe is warmer because we were indifferent when confronted with the facts. Our offspring will know that the fate of the Large-billed Sparrow is in their hands because we let it slip through ours. I may have little faith in my own generation, but, like most parents and grandparents, I do have hope for the next generation. Now if we can just awaken them in time.


Large-billed Sparrow, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, 1 Jan 2012, by Ted Lee Eubanks
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