top of page
  • Writer's pictureAllan Sander

Orange County Oasis

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I recall watching the snow melt revealing a fresh canvas so spring can begin anew. I relished those subtle rising temperatures and lengthening days. I miss this transition even more now that I reside in SoCal. However, I still can witness the plants awakening from their winter slumber and the arrival of our neotropical migrants. So, last year I constructed a small pond as an incentive to bring back some of the wilderness to my lot. Last year it hosted a good variety of bird species, amphibians, and untold invertebrates. Twenty, twenty-two had a lot of new arrivals and the most exciting critter that stopped by was this Bobcat (Lynx rufus) with one of her offspring.

Throughout the year the resident entertainers include the finches and doves: House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus),

Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria),

two species of towhee, Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura),

and a relative newcomer, the Eurasian Collared-Dove (Streptopelia decaocto). I have some disdain for the non-native species; however, I do enjoy the Collared-dove’s pleasant “cooing” song. While bathing like its native cousin, that ‘single-wing-pointed-to-the-heavens’ behavior seems to be a trait for this family of birds.

Just as the finches are constantly vying for position at the feeders, the same can be seen at the local watering hole, too. As one bird arrives solo (goldfinch) or with its mate,

others soon follow – safety in numbers (finches)! By placing an oddly shaped chunk of wood front and center, it caters to the bird’s instinct to land on the highest vantage point to assess the conditions. This allows me to prefocus my camera in anticipation for capturing some inflight landings.

Let us check out the two towhees, they could not be any different, both in appearance and behavior. The overall chocolate-brown color of the California Towhee (Pipilo crissalis), with accents of a buffy throat and undertail coverts has a cantankerous disposition; always quarreling amongst one another.

The contrasting Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) has white spotted wingbars on a black body with a white underside; its flanks powdered in cinnamon. This fella is much more subdued; bathing is a private enterprise and it prefers to take a dip directly in the pond.

The sparrows are indifferent. I was not surprised to see a Rufous-crowned Sparrow (Aimophila ruficeps) boldly take the plunge, much like its tendency at the seed feeder.

I noticed a similar behavior for many birds, as they bathe often times the bill is opened wide. Is this a thermoregulatory action, does it allow more water to trickle into their mouth, or is it just a “Feel good!” reflex? (If you have a reference regarding this behavior, let me know).

I manage to have a White-crown do just that. It is so tempting to attach a humorous caption to one of these images.

Once again, the Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) dances around but never takes the plunge – at least not when I am present, but wait, maybe?! “Oh well, have a drink.”

Although later in the week, I came across another bird splashing about among the hyacinth.

The two flycatchers have a rather distinct way of bathing, “On the wing!” Like an osprey, the phoebe or kingbird (Cassin's - Tyrannus vociferans) will drop down, hit the surface of the water, and fly back up to perch; and instead of ripping up a fish, they fluff up and preen their feathers.

Quite the opposite for the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus), today it contentedly sits under the fountain to take a shower.

When it comes to the California Quail (Callipepla californica) I question whether the bird ever bathes at all?! Many times, the bird is seen having a dust bath, but never have I experienced this bird dampen a single quill.

Later today a female came for a drink as her partner maintained a lookout for any threats.

Another day with new arrivals. I step back and count nearly a dozen tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana).

and half as many grosbeaks (Pheucticus melanocephalus); the swimming pool will have a lot of participants today.

Nature’s splendor is endless: The ostentatious House Finch.

The ubiquitous Lesser Goldfinch.

The springtime surge of Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata).

The flashy yellow and black attire of Western Tanagers.

The breeding males face radiates like the rising sun.

The warm end of the spectrum continues with the vibrant hues of a Hooded (Icterus cucullatus) and...

Hooded Oriole, female

...Bullock’s orioles (Icterus bullockii)

...and Yellow warblers (Setophaga petechia).

Speaking of warblers, after nervously skirting up and down around the pond the Black-throated Gray (Setophaga nigescens)...

...and Townsend’s warblers (Setophaga townsendi) finally felt safe enough to ‘wet their feathers.’

Wilson’s warblers (Carellina pusilla) were also skittish but eventually followed suit, whereas the

Orange-crowned Warbler (Leiothlypis celata) simply jumped right in.

This year’s Neotropical migrants was a steady flow of numbers and species. A highpoint came flitting in the first week of May – a Hermit Warbler (Setophaga occidentalis).

What draws you in is that beady, black eye set within an intense yellow face; it continues with a gray back, white underparts with a jet-black bib and throat.

A pair of Nashville Warblers (Leiothlypis capilla) make an entrance and dash off,

one returns to join a Yellow-rump to survey the layout.

A winter-plumaged Scott’s Oriole (Icterus parisoma) hops in and looks even more subdued after a good soak.

Still, nothing can surpass the “Wet Rag” outfit of a California Towhee (Melozone crissalis)!

An irregular influx of grosbeaks kept me with an ear to the door. When I heard its distinctive metallic “pik” or the alluring “wheo” whistling of a female, it would get me out of my seat and positioned behind the camera. Some of these birds, when thoroughly drenched, appear so tattered - it must be difficult to take-off!

These are very attractive birds; hopefully your patience will reward you to experience that flash of lemon-yellow under its wings.

Sneaking a peek from behind the veil of water, I come eye-to-eye with an inquisitive robin (Turdus migratorius); it seems he probably got distracted by this group of grosbeaks as well.

Late one afternoon, a disturbance among the hyacinth reveals a pair of Western Toads (Anaxyrus boreas) in amplexus. The pair submerges and as the larger female lumbers through the foliage, she releases a strand of eggs which is then fertilized by the smaller male. There can be up to 10,000 or more of these black pearls lining my pool!

The other amphibious resident, a Pacific Treefrog (Pseudacris regilla), has yet to find a mate; every evening its loud “rib-it” call resonates across the night sky.

There were a lot of ‘firsts’ this year, that is, a birds inaugural visit to my "Orange County Oasis." Some birds were mentioned earlier, others include:

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

Oak Titmouse ( Baeolophus inornatus)

Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus)

Rufous-crowned Sparrow (Aimophila ruficeps)

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Corthylio calendula)

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)

Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus)

California Thrasher (Toxostoma redivivum)

Nutmeg Mannikin (Lonchura puntulata)

Another wishful first was for a male Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) to makes its debut. I might have had a female visit however I am not about to differentiate it from an Allen’s until I acquire a telltale image of the tail feathers. However, a male did land, but in a nearby bush and blessed me with a beautiful gorget display.

Back to the pond, another iridescent tyke, a female Anna’s (Calypte anna) that could not resist ‘wetting its feet.’

Earlier in the week, another hummer came in, skirting across the bowl like a miniature hydrofoil.

Yellow-rumps are the most numerous migrants and their desire to bathe seems infectious –

at times birds seem to drop out of the trees like falling leaves.

Today a Cassin’s Kingbird takes a stance atop the exposed log.

A female Phainopepla (P. nitens) alights on the partially submerged log and grabs a quick drink. The kingbird jumps ship to be immediately replaced by another Phainopepla; he

swaps out positions with his mate as she arcs her way into the canopy. Its ‘shining robe’ (Greek: phain pepla) of blue-black gives it an air of elegance.

Now a Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) flies in...

as does a mockingbird (Mimus polyglottus), alighting onto the rim for a quick dip.

Suddenly several distress calls ring out; wings snap, feathers fly, all is silent – a Kestrel (Falco sparverius) sallies into view. Potential prey is now hidden from sight; it too eventually takes wing.

Picidae, the woodpeckers: Year-round regulars are the Flickers (Colaptes auratus),

Nuttall’s (Dryobates nuttallii)...

...and a family of Acorns (Melanerpes formicivorus). The first two will hop in on occasion for a drink, but the latter gives the word, 'indecisive,' a whole new meaning. My last observation has the bird (looking ‘clown-like’) jumping every which way around the pond, spreading its wings in anticipation, turning its head this way and that until it gets behind the bowl, stops, droops its wings, and opens its bill as if exhausted/frustrated - you almost feel sorry for the bird!

Next, out of the ‘blue’ (…the cooler end of the spectrum, as it were.), come the...

...Jays (Aphelocoma californica),

...Bluebirds (Sialia mexicanus),

...and Buntings (Passerina amoena).

I had hoped to throw in some cool blue adjectives but the more I researched the more difficult it was to match the hue to the bird. As you can see with the last image of the bunting, the bird's color can change: be it a bird photographed in the sun, (and at which angle), in the shade, the color of the background - be it lighter/darker, and so on. This brings up the argument of which format is best represented in a Field Guide: Illustrations vs. Photographs.

The "blues' continue with Western Fence Lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis). This time of year, breeding males are displaying their finest vestments. The spikey armament is pockmarked with such intense colors it would make anyone hard pressed to categorize these various hues of blue.

Taking the color to heart, I look skyward and find several Ravens (Corvus corax) riding the thermals. One bird emits multiple shrill calls, a sign of duress, as it banks right in front of me. “I wonder?”

I race upstairs to the balcony when I hear the call of a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)! “Yes!” It is perched atop my neighbor’s pine tree. Before the raven’s begin their assault, the tail of the hawk is raised, relieving itself, a signal that “Take off!” is imminent. I manage to get my camera focused and snap off a couple of images as it launches itself, heading into the valley and out of sight.

Looking down, I like to think Mother Nature has given me a nod of approval for this little pond of mine. It not only compliments the landscape, and is aesthetically appealing, but I get my

fill of entertainment, too! More importantly, it enhances the quality of the land. It is embraced by the local wildlife and aids those that are simply passing through. The natural world requires very little from us other than to allow it to breathe and give back its space, so it can thrive. We have used, abused, and taken away so much from Her, every effort from each individual can collectively make a difference. Do your share, and relish those natural moments.

Location: Orange County, California - USA

Date: April and May 2022

Additional Images:

18 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page