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Don't Leave Until You Find That Bird
Episode 10
Don't Leave Until You Find That Bird
This week, Marcos takes us on a quest to find a small, elusive, endangered bird in the heart of sprawling Los Angeles. Human Nature is sponsored by BetterHelp and our listeners get 10% off their first month of online therapy at Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Marcos Trinidad 0:02

[theme music] Hey, what's up? From LAist Studios, this is Human/Nature. I'm Marcos Trinidad. Today I'm going to tell you a story about an experience that made me look at the nature of my own neighborhood a little differently. You see, for over a decade, I've been going to a park in northeast LA, called Rio de Los Angeles State Park. It pretty much has all that you would expect to see in an urban park. There's a playground with swings, and a splash pad, a baseball field, tables to eat at, and a winding pathway that is perfect for an easy hike. [footsteps] [music out] It's a route that I've taken over 100 times, and I even know the locations of the plants by heart. But three years ago, while I was walking through, I heard a sound that I've never heard there before.

Marcos Trinidad 0:54

[birds chirping] This may sound a little crazy, but at that moment, it suddenly felt like a whole new dimension of the park opened up. [original music] Now you know me- I love being a naturalist. And I'm a person who studies and observes the natural world professionally as a part of a national conservation organization, but also on my own. And there isn't a street corner in this city, or the whole world for that matter where nature doesn't exist. Because no matter where you are, once you open yourself up to observation, the world becomes alive in new and fantastic ways. Today we are visiting Rio de Los Angeles. And I'm going to open myself up to observation once again. This time, I'm on a quest to hear that same sound I heard before and in the process, tell you the story of the little bird who makes it because I kind of feel if you understand why that bird matters, you understand why urban nature matters. [music out]

Marcos Trinidad 2:09

[ambient outdoor sounds] All right, so yeah. I think w- we'll walk in and and I have a a little route that I do. [in background woman says: Awesome.]

Marcos Trinidad 2:20

It's not going to be easy because the call comes from a small, endangered bird known as the Least Bell's Vireo, unassuming to the eye, small and grey. But don't underestimate it. It's a mighty traveler, soaring up the coastline in the spring, from the southern tip of Baja to return home to nest here in California. I took my producers along. It was a balmy July morning at 8am. [footsteps] They were groggy, but that is the time you're gonna see all the action.

Marcos Trinidad 2:54

[to producers][birds chirping] Oh, you know what I hear? Those are Canadian geese that are coming. [geese calling in the distance]

Marcos Trinidad 3:00

The parks proximity to water is what makes it such a special place to see wildlife.

Marcos Trinidad 3:06

[to producers] Oh, check that out. That's an Osprey.

Marcos Trinidad 3:10

An Osprey is a bird of prey found around water, oceans, lakes, and of course rivers, like this one. It's a really large white bird with a wingspan of about five feet. And it looks like it's wearing a little Zorro mask.

Marcos Trinidad 3:26

[to producers] So you hear that? It'll happen again. So a lot of folks are now birding by ear, which is really cool, where you don't really have to see the bird to appreciate the bird because you start to be able to recognize the the call. And I get a lot of question like, Well, wow! Like, how can you listen to that? I'm like, well think about it. Like, how many voices can you hear in a number of different songs? And you're like, oh, that was Drake. Like, y- you can't sneak Drake by me. [laughs]

Marcos Trinidad 3:58

[producer in background: What bird is the Drake of birds?] So [laughing] I don't know. I think for me right now, I think the Drake o- of birds would probably be the the California Scrub Jay. [a producer laughs] J- just because the California Scrub Jay is gonna come out in everything. You're always gonna see that California Scrub Jay, kinda like Drake right now. [laughs]

Marcos Trinidad 4:21

The Western Scrub Jay's related to the Blue Jay. But Blue Jays are found on the East Coast and have little Mohawks, while the Scrub Jays are found here out west and have no fancy haircut. They're elegant birds with blue feathers and little white eyebrows. Here's a sample of the Scrub Jay call, so you can hear it everywhere too. [Scrub Jay call]

Marcos Trinidad 4:51

So now we- we're going down to the lower portion of the wetland. We go off the path and get closer to the wooded wetlands. One of my producers asked me what that sweet musk she's smelling is. If you're talking to my daughter, she would call it cowboy cologne. [beeping sound of truck backing up] You know folklore goes that before the cowboys were going into town, they'd rub this all over themselves. So it was like the original Old Spice, [laughing] right? Um, but she learned that and then anytime she was on a on a walk with me and I'd be like, Oh yeah, here's Artemisia or California Sagebrush. She's like, I call it cowboy cologne. [laughing] Little six year old running around.

Marcos Trinidad 5:35

Because we're in summer, cowboy cologne has gotten kind of scraggly. It looks like a big bush of dried out Rosemary with long spindly stems and aromatic leaves. It smells really good. [birds chirping] So it's just a combination of of [laughs] decaying leaf, like this is kind of what it what it smells like. [birds calling]

Marcos Trinidad 6:00

See how that picked up? That cool little breeze and all of a sudden you can start to hear the cottonwood which is amazing. We look up at the swaying cottonwood tree. It's tall, with leaves that look like plump green hearts. But it's always the sound of the rustling leaves that gets to me. [sound of rustling leaves and birds calling]

Marcos Trinidad 6:27

You can identify this tree based off of the sound, of, that the tree makes off of the leaves like blowing in the wind, and I just have these really awesome memories of being in the Eastern Sierras and listening to 'em, you know, either at night, or waking up in the morning with the cool breeze.

Marcos Trinidad 6:50

[original music] No sign of the Least Bell's Vireo though. After the break, we continue our search for this elusive endangered bird. [music out] [break]

Marcos Trinidad 7:11

The first time I heard the Least Bell's Vireo at this park, my daughter was going to her tennis lessons, and I was walking around the park with my son.

Marcos Trinidad 7:19

[various birds calling] The name of this little bird comes from a man named Bell, who joined ornithologist John James Audubon on an excursion in the 1840s. It's the smallest subspecies of the Bell's Vireo. That's why they added the word 'least'. For decades, you couldn't hear its call in this part of the city, [original music] but if I stood on this same land 400 years ago, there would have been an abundance of the Least Bell's Vireo flapping around. Everything would have looked a lot different. I would have seen a thriving wetlands, a gathering place for deer and mountain lions and bears. The LA River would have been full of Steelhead trout, which are also endangered today. Back then, there was a balance between wildlife and humans. The Native Americans of this land didn't disrupt other ecosystems by overfishing, over hunting or exploiting resources. The river was their main source of water, and it provided for everything and everyone. [flowing water sounds] But remember what we talked about in the previous episode. In the late 1700s, things would begin to change. [industrial sounds] Colonizers from Spain settled by the water, and more and more people would arrive to California. Development would continue along the riverbanks. And then, in 1938, the river would flood. [storm sounds] The water destroyed multiple bridges, more than 1000 homes and killed nearly 100 people. Like we discussed before, in response to this tragedy, the US Army Corps of Engineers enclosed the river in a concrete channel that was made with more than 3 million barrels of cement. This stripped most of the river of its natural functions. We lost communities of mammals, fish, and of course, birds. [birds chirping] The Least Bell's Vireo had fewer places to nest, and so the song of the Least Bell's Vireo faded away. And so that's why hearing its call that day was such a rush. It was so unexpected. There I was performing my dad duties with my kids, in the middle of my work week, and in one of the biggest cities in the world, and I was hearing an endangered species. And the only reason I can hear it at all is because starting in the 80s, a group of activists and local ecologists demanded change.

Activist 10:00

[audio clip] If you believe in the LA River, if you believe in what Friends of the Los Angeles River does, then you can be part of it.

Marcos Trinidad 10:07

Thanks to them, the city changed how they thought about natural spaces along the river. And now we have places like this park.

Marcos Trinidad 10:15

[to guest] First, good morning and thank you for agreeing to meet with us.

Señora Anna 10:21

Buenos dias.

Marcos Trinidad 10:21

***Anna cellular Louise, a longtime Northeast LA resident remembers what this area was like before the park was built.

Señora Anna 10:29

***Porque anteriormente era un basurero.

Marcos Trinidad 10:34

Señora Anna says that it was basically a garbage dump. I asked Señora Anna to meet at Rio because she is one of the abuelas who volunteers and cares for the plants and wildlife in the park. We walk towards the wetlands.

Señora Anna 10:49

***Esto a key a key even less. Less. Mariposa. See CMP No no carthamus Law less Florida Sunoco law says more on Amazon.

Marcos Trinidad 10:58

She tells me that in this area lives a community of butterflies. Señora Anna helps preserve their habitat by not removing dying flowers, but rather letting them decompose naturally. It gives the seeds a greater chance to propagate. To propagate means to reproduce. The more plants, the larger the butterfly habitat will be. But sometimes, she also gives the plants a little push. And right now um, Señora Anna was was looking at the California buckwheat and right now the the flowers are a rust color, and she's grabbing the flowers and um, dispersing the seed which hopefully will be able to uh propagate itself. Señora Anna is very stylish. She's wearing white pants, has a crop of gray hair under a sun hat and polarized glasses that turned dark in the sun. She's pretty cool. She's been doing this work for 10 years. She says it's been a magnificent experience.

Señora Anna 12:02

***Badal parama Soto sassier experience magnificant porque Mosby Stoker selasa salasar wall is

Marcos Trinidad 12:08

To see the park get established, but more importantly, to observe how the plants and trees grow, this is the aspect of the park that I find most moving. In the environmental and the conservation world, we talk so much about preserving ecosystems. But yet sometimes we don't apply that same thinking to communities of people. This park isn't just home to Ospreys and Warblers. It provides for people who live in the area.

Señora Anna 12:34

***is him premier Gustavo lubricators, younger Sen el campo,

Marcos Trinidad 12:38

And that was done on purpose. When they designed Rio, [footsteps] they thought about the balance between wildlife and humans. There's a planted wetlands that is filled with California natives alongside a basketball court that's always poppin'. [sound of wind blowing] A playground where young kids go back and forth on the swing [crow calling] and a walking path for everyone, including abuelas like Señora Anna. [footsteps] She tells me taking care of the plants gives her a sense of purpose.

Señora Anna 13:10

***in doses historically down motivo maybe it's to his como se Oh todavia Zerbo para algo

Marcos Trinidad 13:19

She's not wrong. Señora Anna's work is not just a cute story about a cute little grandma.

Señora Anna 13:24

***The llamas come in Tando. kavieng especialmente impact return peligro this thing cion he said this could be eight Okay. encontraron is the Parkett Trespa halitosis is pesi

Marcos Trinidad 13:37

Señora Anna and everyone else who volunteers and works at this park are literally keeping the Least Bell's Vireo from extinction. [original music] When we come back, I'm going to find this endangered bird. Stay tuned.

Marcos Trinidad 13:53

[to Señora Anna] Well, thank you for for the tour. Every, all the work is is is really inspiring.

Señora Anna 14:00

Gracias Marcos. [music out] [break]

Marcos Trinidad 14:10

Okay, we're back. And a very modest guest is joining me at Rio de Los Angeles. So we're here with Dan Cooper, who some might might know as as the rock star in the birding world.

Dan Cooper 14:26

Sure, sure.

Marcos Trinidad 14:27

I invited Dan here because he's the go to biologist for bird surveys along the LA River. He's also the most exacting birder I know.

Dan Cooper 14:35

Let's go birding. [birds chirping]

Marcos Trinidad 14:36

Two birders are better than one and with Dan's help, we're close to tracking down the Least Bell's Vireo.

Dan Cooper 14:42

It was singing as we were walking over here, but now it uh clammed up.

Marcos Trinidad 14:45

So tell me a little bit about the Least Bell's Vireo.

Dan Cooper 14:48

It's an interesting species. So Bell's Vireos are found across the Southwest and a little bit in the Midwest. It was formerly found up in the Central Valley when that area had big river forests running through it. But then as you know, in the last century, all of the Central Valley is pretty much converted to agriculture.

Marcos Trinidad 15:06

Between the LA River getting cemented and the Central Valley being stripped to create farmland, the Least Bell's Vireo was added to the list of endangered species in 1986.

Dan Cooper 15:17

And these little slivers of habitat are just part of what keeps these endangered species in town.

Marcos Trinidad 15:25

When I first spotted the Least Bell's Vireo a few years ago at this park, it was a big deal because not only did I see the bird, but I also saw its nest.

Dan Cooper 15:34

And so when a bird nests, that sort of confirms that the habitat is working. You know, it has enough resources to support its young.

Marcos Trinidad 15:45

The Least Bell's Vireos are creatures of habit. And after their 1000-mile migration, they often nest in the very same tree every year.

Dan Cooper 15:54

And the song is this scratchy phrase that goes up and then goes down. And so it was described to me as uh, You take the ball, give it to me, I take the ball, give it to you.

Marcos Trinidad 16:06

I'm not really hearing what Dan is saying, but that's the song we're trying to catch. [ambient outdoor sounds] Maybe if we go down and in here... I heard something.

Dan Cooper 16:20

A lot of stuff calling. Some Anna's Hummingbirds singing, some Bushtits twittering there. That's a Bullock's Oriole, that little tring? Gotta get our Vireo. I'll bet it's, it's gotta be in here. I don't hear it. I mean, eventually, it'll start again. They they, this is their territory so, like fishing, you don't always catch a fish right away.

Marcos Trinidad 16:48

After an hour of searching for this bird, we come up short. Dan has to go on with his life, and so we say goodbye.

Dan Cooper 16:58

Don't leave until you see that bird, Marcos. [Marcos laughs] I'm gonna come back here at noon. You better be sweating out here looking for that guy.

Marcos Trinidad 17:04

Yeah. All right. Thanks.

Dan Cooper 17:05

Thank you.

Marcos Trinidad 17:06

I keep coming back to this bird, because now that it's here, we need to make sure that it sticks around. The struggle's real. Climate change threatens the [original music] trees and shrubs that the birds nest in. And a parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird lays its eggs in their nest, starving the baby Vireo. So after coming up short with Dan, for the next couple of days, I'm determined to go back to Rio early in the morning hoping I will catch a glimpse of this bad boy. I record myself on my phone.

Marcos Trinidad 17:36

[recorded audio] It's been pretty quiet here in the wetland. It's starting to warm up a little bit. I'm feeling hopeful. I, I'm excited. I I could feel that we're we're gonna catch something soon.

Marcos Trinidad 17:52

The first morning... saw some cool stuff.

Marcos Trinidad 17:55

[recorded audio] I just spotted a Black-headed Grosbeak, which is pretty awesome. A Nuttall's Woodpecker that just called above me in a Willow.

Marcos Trinidad 18:05

But no Least Bell's Vireo. The second morning, I was feeling hopeful.

Marcos Trinidad 18:10

[recorded audio] So little after 8am, and the park is is definitely coming to life.

Marcos Trinidad 18:19

Though, still nothing. Finally, on the third outing, right about the same time I was going to leave...

Marcos Trinidad 18:26

[recorded audio] So I found the Least Bell's Vireo. I hear it calling. I'm walking toward it now. I'm in the wetlands portion right next to the railroad tracks. [whispering] I can hear it. This is so cool. [birds calling] And I got eyes on it. There we are. Our buddy, Least Bell's Vireo. [birds calling] To be able to witness a federally endangered bird, like it doesn't get much better than this. [laughs]

Marcos Trinidad 19:14

Seeing this little gray bird means so much to me. To me, the bird is a sign of what urban planners, the city government, conservationists, and naturalists like me are doing- it's working, that we're on the right track. Because what I do is about finding a balance between humans and nature, [music out] a coexistence where animals, plants and humanity are all mutually benefiting each other. For a while many of us humans have disrupted that balance. And it's up to us to do all we can to make it right. The habitat restoration at this park [ambient outdoor sounds] [birds chirping] is not just about restoring the habitat for wildlife. It's about also restoring the connection to people and their land. The the example is there. We have the indicator species that are telling us that this is working, that it's possible. You have this beautiful bird and what it represents for our community [theme music] that there is something special about our community. There is something special about our visitors, whether they're feathered or whether they're walking, if we take the time to make these observations and appreciate it. And that's our show. Caroline and Carla, take it away.

Caroline Champlin 20:36

Human/Nature is hosted by Marcos Trinidad. This episode about the Least Bell's Vireo- that was produced by Antonia Cereijido, Fiona Ng and Taylor Coffman. It was mixed and engineered by Hasmik Poghosyan and Parker McDaniels. Ex Mañana composed our music. Doris Anahi Muñoz is the music supervisor, and the time in the field was recorded on Gabrieleño Tongva Territory.

Carla Javier 21:00

Human/Nature is a production of LAist Studios and is produced by Caroline Champlin, who you just heard, and me, Carla Javier. Fiona Ng is our acting supervising producer. Parker McDaniels is our engineer. The marketing team created our branding, with art by Christine Tyler Hill. Special thanks to Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Neha Shaida.

Caroline Champlin 21:25

And thank you to Erick Galindo, Jill Replogle, Megan Larson, Mariana Dale, Marina Peña, and Sophia Paliza-Carre. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live.

Carla Javier 21:44

And this program is also made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. Back to you, Marcos.

Marcos Trinidad 21:54

I just want to say thank you again, for listening to Human/Nature. Now go and explore the nature in your neighborhood.

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