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Burb's Eye View: Birders descend on Wildwood Canyon

September 11, 2012|By Bryan Mahoney

We take hushed steps toward our target, but the pebbly asphalt of the Wildwood Canyon road adds a crunch to our steps that gives us away. It's that easy to lose your mojo.

The towhee, once safely stooping for a drink from the runoff from a morning sprinkler shower, flicks his head to spy us with a bright, blood-red eye. Then he's back in the brush to wait out these possible predators: me, my wife and our guide, Nick Wilhelm.

But we're just here to watch the little guy. His black head and white-and-black banded wings cover a stout orange breast, reminding me of a robin. And if it weren't for Wilhelm, that's what I'd probably guess.

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Wilhelm and Mike McHorney lead bird expeditions once a month at Wildwood Canyon. Until recently it was just McHorney, a lifelong bird lover who led the tours solo for 14 years. Wilhelm's retirement from middle school education gave him time to work on his Life List — a birder's bucket list of all the species they want to see in person.

McHorney's life list can be seen at the Stough Canyon Nature Center — the retired Burbank parks and recreation employee is also an amateur photographer, and his pictures are posted all over the center, sharing with visitors a small sample of the wildlife they'll see in Burbank's hills.

The duo leads birding expeditions on the second Sunday of each month. All you need is a good pair of binoculars and a way to get to Wildwood Canyon at 9 a.m. The rest of the show is in the hands (or claws) of the “actors” — and McHorney and Wilhelm will provide the narration.

“Just like we would be in the air conditioning on a hot morning, that's theirs,” Wilhelm says as we watch the towhee scramble back under a bush.

The binoculars I brought were sub-par, to say the least — in birding it's more important to have a wide field of vision than magnification, Wilhelm tells me. My plastic yellow binoculars are fine for sitting at the circus 100 rows up; they're less adept at quick recon for a shadow flitting by. I borrow a pair from Wilhelm and we soon learn I have a knack for spotting the wren-tit zipping through the sumac.

I giggle at the name. So do middle-schoolers, Wilhelm says.

On an average morning, McHorney and Wilhelm will spot eight to 15 species, depending on the time of year. There's always a possibility of a rare bird being blown in from the sea, or a migratory bird taking an early or late vacation.

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