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Topanga Naturally: The Nearby Exotic
May 17, 2012 - By Meghan Walla-Murphy
PHOTO BY MEGHAN WALLA-MURPHY
Red-winged blackbirds mark their territory, mate and nest in “exotic” Topanga Canyon.
Lured by a sound that sends my mind to the exotic, to the tropics, I begin walking toward the cattails.
My memory takes me back to Nicaraguas rainforests along the Rio Bartola, back to a Refugio still protected from slash-and-burn, cattle and monoculture. I remember sparrow-sized black birds with brilliant red heads and vibrant yellow leg feathers.
These red-capped manakins (Pipra mentalis) are flying around the circumference of a forest opening. They land on any horizontal perch to shuffle and sashay back and forth so smoothly they seem to be rolling on wheels rather than clumsy bird feet. Their dance also includes spins, boisterous song, and, best of all, loud wing slaps, claps and snaps. The air fills with their buzzing and humming flights.
I heard their dance long before I saw it, which is exactly the point: to draw the female closer. It has worked on me, but my human femininity has no effect on these males. These serious fellows do not break a step, though I sit directly below their lek, a general term used for an area where male birds congregate to give the performance of their lifetime. Truly, their lineage depends on it as generation after generation of males dance to define territories, find a mate and breed.
Over the hours I sit and watch, I notice highs and lows in their activity levels. When the femmes are absent the males dampen their activity to a slow shuffle here and there. But then a female comes near and the party begins. Wings snap fiercely, songs volume increases, and the males sashay until even I am exhausted from watching.
Then a few daring females enter the circumference and scuffles break out amongst the males. Some females retreat to the safety of the forest, but one stays perched near a dancing male. He steps up his game and though his dance is for the female he seems to have forgotten her as he suddenly shuffles her right off the branch, forcing her to take flight or hit the ground. Perhaps not the best reproductive strategy as his would-be mate flies off and does not return in the hours I watch.
It is this thought of reproductive strategy that brings me back to my present and to the exotic sounds that reminded me of Nicaragua. Once again I am standing by Topanga Creek near where it meets the ocean and I am peering into the cattails. In front of me I hear lively song and see flashes of red against glossy black, only this time, I am watching red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus).
At this time of year (April, May and June), territorial shows, courtship displays, and breeding dances consume these blackbirds.
Prior to the females arrival, the males congregate at the breeding grounds for confrontations to establish territories. Flashy bright red epaulets vibrate in a display called songspread.
Head to head, males approach one another with their bills lifted above the horizon in a bill-tilt presentation. With fiery epaulets exposed, this bill duel results in one male flying off while the other remains to patrol his boundaries.
Another male trespasses and the presiding male launches into song-flight. Slowly and haltingly, he flies at the intruder with his head down, broad red shoulders puffed, and tail spread. Daunted, the offender quickly departs. The longer I watch, the melee I first observed reveals orderly individual territories I can discern.
A few weeks later, I return to the same spot. The females have arrived and, as with the manakins, the displays increase, though now they are of courtship and breeding. The females perch around the periphery until a male notices and approaches in song-flight, though this time he hopes to present genetic vigor rather than fear.
He continues with a songspread display, vibrant red shoulders vibrating, until an interested female enters his territory. She lands near him and he arches over and spreads his wings for several seconds in a crouch display.
Not enticed by his attention, she flies away. Undeterred, the male pursues in a sexual chase where he follows her, momentarily forgetting all territorial boundaries established weeks before. Seemingly impressed she follows him back to his perch and if all goes well, breeding and nest building will soon begin.
While the females busy themselves with nests, incubation and initial feeding, the males continue their territorial displays and find other females to charm with their dances, a show that lasts well into July. A show that reminds me I dont have to travel far to see the exotic.
But perhaps the search for the exotic is not one of travel but rather a search for a missing connection to the Wild. A search for wonder and awe we no longer see in our landscape. A search for surrender to curiosity and passion, as a child does when sitting amongst the metallic ringing songs and red flashes of the blackbirds.
Thankfully we do not need to fly to Nicaragua, or even another state. Topanga Canyon is filled with Wildness and possibilities for connection. We only have to slow down, remember to look beautifully at those things we see each day, and open up to our exotic within.