The birds in my ‘hood have been having a shindig.
Have they finally decided it’s spring? Are they heralding in the (early) 80-degree weather? Are they welcoming the wild parrots of South Pasadena? (The latter only occasionally visit my neck of Mount Washington, but I’ve recently heard tales of wild parrot parties that rival teen blowouts for exuberance and volume.)
Maybe the birds of Mount Washington are just excited about the seventeenth-annual Jack and Denny Smith Trail Walk, which takes place this Sunday, April 22.
The trail, after all, is marked with placards bearing images of the hard-to-spot grackle.
Hard to spot west of the Mississippi, that is.
Jack Smith and the Grackle
In the 1960’s, Mount Washington resident Jack Smith casually mentioned that a common grackle swooped across his birdbath when he was out on the patio writing about spring for his column in the Los Angeles Times. Smith’s alleged sighting sent serious bird watchers into a tailspin and not for reasons that you might expect. The Audubon Society informed Smith that while Great-tailed Grackles were occasionally spotted in California, the Common Grackle had never been sighted west of the Mississippi River.
The writer was undaunted. “If indeed there were grackles on the other side of the Mississippi,” Smith pointed out in a subsequent column, “what was to keep one from flying across it and coming out to Los Angeles.”
Mount Washington’s wry writer never capitulated and kept the conversation going for years to the (mild) consternation of birders and the delight of pretty much everyone else.
Smith claimed, for instance, to have seen many other birds that “have no business being in my backyard,” including a peacock.
The columnist wrote that people believed his canyon-adjacent property was probably “in the path of some natural phenomenon--perhaps a magnetic field--that causes birds to seek it out, far from their usual paths.”
Smith also noted that readers incorrectly believed his knowledge of birds to be “profound if not mystical” and asked his advice about everything from warblers to road runners.
In 1976, the Los Angeles Audubon Society presented Smith with a pen & ink drawing by Mary Ellen Pereyra of the "mythical" California Common Grackle or Quiscalus quiscula smith. The inscription on the back read, “To Mr. Jack Smith, With affection and amusement. Los Angeles Audubon Society.”
According to my neighbor Lynette Kampe, who helps to organize the hike every year, “the Jack Smith Trail was created as a joke and published in the Times.”
So it seems only fitting that the image of the grackle (not Pereyra’s drawing, however) was a natural choice for inside-joke signs to guide stragglers or late comers to the hike, which leaves at 9:00 and 9:30 a.m. from the tunnel entrance to the Southwest Museum on Museum Drive.
Challenging Climb Yields Lovely Vistas
Hikers should be prepared for a not-quite-vertical climb at the beginning, a slight easing in grade replete with stops for water and views of canyons and the Arroyo, then a fairly level walk that heads around the Sea View Loop (or Monk’s Trail, as I have always called it) with its vistas of mountains, city, and sea. Leashed dogs are welcome on the four mile walk. Those unable--or unwilling-- to do the whole hike can join at the Sea View Loop around the corner from Mount Washington Elementary School.
Kampe notes that some years ago, the Trail was subsequently renamed “The Jack and Denny Smith Trail” by the Mount Washington community in recognition of Denise Smith’s generosity to Mount Washington Elementary. Fittingly, local Girl Scout Troop #1955 will be serving refreshments to canines and humans in front of the school before trail walkers head down Mount Washington Drive, past Jack Smith’s house, and down Canyon Vista Drive back to their starting point.
Grackle sightings will be duly noted.