I met Kathy Degner in a corner of the Celebration of Oaks, in a corner of the Eaton Canyon Nature Center, in a corner of Pasadena. The day was overcast and cool, and various folks milled about, browsing the booths that were celebrating Pasadena’s abundant natural beauty!
Kathy is a board member of the Pasadena Audubon Society, whose booth invited birders of all ages to come make bookmarks, spin the wheel of birding, and discover a wealth of bird species that called the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains home. We had been connected through our mutual friends, Muckle and Peedie, and I wanted to know what made her come out here on a weekend to talk about birds.
“I think I probably have birding in my blood,” she said as we sat down next to a booth distributing oak saplings. “My grandmother was a naturalist and a birder in Wisconsin, and although she passed away before I was born, she passed that on to my dad and then my mom, and they were both interested.”
Kathy’s memories of childhood vacations are inseparable from binoculars and field guides. A lover of mysteries, she is driven by many questions: What bird is that? What bird matches that call? What is that bird doing here?
And mysteries are abundant in birding. For instance, Kathy talked about irruption years, like 2013 when a vast parliament of snowy owls descended upon Boston and a flock of blue-footed boobies suddenly appeared at Lake Skinner, near Temecula. “I had a broken rib,” Kathy laughed, “and I crossed those rocks on the jetty just to see them. That’s how desperate I was. Birders do crazy things. I’m like, I’m not missing that. Cause who knew if they were going to stick around?”
It was an important question. Despite these anomalies, Kathy noted sadly, the birds here are declining, whether from disease—”Sometimes bird feeders can be the worst things in the world because, as much as we love them, if a bird is diseased, it can pass on easily to the other birds”—or, more severely, from habitat loss.
As one example, Kathy mentioned the Hahamongna Watershed, which LA County did not maintain for many years and where the Jet Propulsion Laboratory dumped all of their fuel before they knew it was toxic. Despite that, an entire ecosystem grew up around the main dam, drawing in some very rare and unusual birds. The county now wants to start doing their job, dredging up all the toxic sediment and hauling it out, putting 400 trucks a day on the roads, which is a great idea with bad timing: a disaster for the birds! So the Pasadena Audubon Society is taking the county to court (#NoBigDig), and we’ll keep our feathers crossed for our avian friends.
The Pasadena Audubon Society also buys land to set aside as wildlife corridors. Kathy mentioned one plot they bought from a wealthy family that was planning to develop it, where they found a rare spotted owl nesting on the site! Spotted owls, if you’ll remember, were the poster-fledglings of an environmental controversy in 1986 that required timber companies to leave “40% of the old-growth forests intact within a 1.3 mile radius of any spotted owl nest or activity site.”
These are great individual actions by the Pasadena Audubon Society, but what Kathy is most proud of, and what could have the greatest impact of all, is their young birder’s program, a rarity among SoCal’s Audubon Societies. The kids that participate in this program, ranging from 5 to 18, aren’t just going out into the woods to look at birds either.
“They have now become condor ambassadors recognized by the Fish and Wildlife Service. They have gone on condor releases. They actually released the first condor that was ever caught in captivity when they tried to do all the captive breeding to repopulate […] They’ve also gone back to help, because they capture them and test their blood for lead, monthly or every couple of months.”
The kids also have the opportunity to be docents at the Santa Barbara Zoo, educating more people about birds, chiefly the endangered California condor. “To have that many kids committed to what we’re doing really makes you feel good, that we’re doing something right. When we go out on our bird walks, they’re out there with their binoculars, and most of them know more about birds than the adults do. It’s really amazing. We are really proud of them.”
To keep these amazing programs alive, the Pasadena Audubon has some hurdles to overcome. “Money is always a challenge,” admits Kathy. “We’d like to do more programs. We’d like to get involved in the schools, but all of those things take money to develop the kids. And also just getting people involved in our program.”
The Pasadena Audubon Society has just hired a new program manager to move them toward these goals, which also include finding their own headquarters, better targeting groups that could benefit from birding activities, and raising more awareness about the birds of Pasadena.
“I like being able to come out here and know that I can still hear [a white-crowned sparrow]. As long as we have that, it’s my hope that they’ll always be there, that we’ll always have a bird out there singing.”
If you want to help the helpers in this amazing program, there are lots of ways to help! You could start by attending an Audubon Society meeting—”We welcome anyone to come visit us any time. We always have snacks.”—held at Eaton Canyon Nature Center (1750 N Altadena Dr, Pasadena, CA 91107) on the third Wednesday of every month from 7:30 to 9:30 PM. You can also become a member or donate by visiting their website: PasadenaAudubon.Org.
Check out Kathy’s amazing photos on Instagram: CaliKatBird!