Hansen: Birds, fossils and Hollywood — just another Laguna day

I tried to fit in but bird people are twitchy that way.

It was early Sunday morning and the start of the Wild Bird Safari when a khaki-clad woman leaned into me and said, "You're not a birder, are you?"

I think it was the binoculars. Everyone else had them except me. Even the pale, preternaturally smart schoolboy had them.

"I have a zoom lens," I said weakly, holding up my camera.

The group of eight — all wearing Audubon Society patches, REI gear and high-tech fanny packs — sized me up like I was a lame gazelle, just waiting to be killed off.

They turned and started walking. I shuffled in behind them, head down.

"It's a big zoom," I said under my breath.

Nearly every weekend in Laguna Beach you can do something for free that is not normal. The bird hike, sponsored by the Orange County Parks in the Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, is one of them.

I saw the bird movie with Steve Martin, "The Big Year," and figured it would be fun.

Our safari host is volunteer Tom Eastman, a burly, no-nonsense man who clearly looks like a park ranger, with Popeye-like forearms and one of those stiff hats. He likes to clear trails as we go along and politely but firmly tells wayward hikers to stay on the trail.

But he will also suddenly stop and say things like, "Did you hear that Ash-Throated Flycatcher?"

When he points the bird out, I resist the urge to ask, "Isn't that just a sparrow?"

Everything looks pretty much like a sparrow to me — except the Blue Jay.

"It's not a Blue Jay," Eastman said, politely but firmly. "It's a Western Scrub Jay."

I think that was when I stopped talking, except when I asked about the rocks.

You see, the main point of my going on this Wild Bird Safari was to find out about the big boulders of Laguna and the Indian caves.

I wanted to hear about the Native American petroglyphs, which I was sure dotted the many caves in the area.

Turns out there aren't any, although Laguna Niguel may still have a couple to the south.

And the caves aren't, like, real caves.

"It's a great fantasy to think the caves were used by ancient people, but that's generally not the case," Eastman said.

"Generally" … see, there is hope. I'm clinging to my fantasy.

What I did learn was that the cool, cave-like shapes were formed by erosion, bringing me back to fifth grade. Most of the boulders are made out of soft sandstone, so it doesn't take much to make interesting shapes.

"Wind, water and a whole lot of time," Eastman said.

I think it was only for my sake that he took us to the fossils.

On the Laurel Canyon trail, past the healthy patches of poison ivy — I mean oak — there are the sea shells. Officially called pectinidae or scallops, sure enough, they sit frozen in a slab of rock.

Unlike the birders, I took a picture of the fossils with my zoom lens, thank you very much.

Mostly, though, it was all about the birds.

The goldfinch, warbler, House Finch, woodpecker, towhee, Phainopepla, Hooded Oriole, Hutton's Vireo and my favorite, the Wrentit.

And foliage: gypsum weed, sycamore, California buckwheat, coastal sage brush and coyote melon.

There was more, much more.

Eastman was like a walking encyclopedia.

Here are some random facts that you can pull out at your next cocktail party, if the conversation starts to lag.

Red ants are not red ants. They are native harvester ants. And those holes they dig in the ground can go down 50 feet.

The bits of grass they carry into the holes are not to be eaten later, like acorns in winter. The ants wait until the grass starts to decompose and form a fungus, then they eat the fungus.

Yeah, that's a bonus trivia fact for you right there.

And the black ants, they were brought in from Argentina. Eastman doesn't like the black ants because they aren't native, so he didn't talk about them much.

There are antlions, too. Those are the big, freaky ant-like things with wings. They set traps in sand that resemble a small mound.

If the ant stories become too much, you can switch it up by adding a little Hollywood.

The hills are filled with Toyon, or California Holly, which grows those red Christmas berries. Eastman said they were so prevalent in the old days that that's how Hollywood got its name.

So there you go.

Wild Bird Safari, fossils, Native American culture, ants, sparrows and blue jays — all for you.

Bring some binoculars though.

Or a big zoom.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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