A year of life in Los Angeles has yielded but a disappointing half-dozen celebrity sightings. In rough chronological order:
1)Acerbiccomic Richard Belzer amid a large group at Yamashiro, a touristy “Cal-Asian” restaurant in the Hollywood Hills with a panoramic view of the city.
2) Actress Courtney Thorne-Smith, late of Melrose Place and Ally McBeal , wearing an Ann Taylor–esque pale periwinkle shell while eating salad lunches with some other blond ladies at Barney Greengrass atop Barneys Beverly Hills.
3) America’s erstwhile sweetheart, Sandra Bullock, dining with some older, familial-looking companions at Cobras and Matadors, a popular, dimly lit tapas joint on Beverly Boulevard.
4) Troubled, talented, tousled actor Robert Downey Jr. horsing around with a child-perhaps his son, Indio-as a dark-windowed limousine idled ominously on the northeast corner of Sunset Plaza Drive in West Hollywood.
5) Fallen American Idol Justin Guarini at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, heading in the general direction of a Designer Shoe Warehouse, his signature halo of brown curls bobbing with every step. (For some reason, people stopped, pointed and gaped at this one as if it were the second coming of Jesus.)
6) Dynasty diva Joan Collins in black pants, black leather jacket and black fedora pulled low, shopping for form-fitting ski parkas at the Sport Chalet–Beverly Connection accompanied by a man several years her junior in high-waisted jeans-not her latest husband, Percy.
And that’s it. No Paris Hilton panting on the adjacent Precor at Crunch, no Bennifer at the Ivy, no Justin Timberlake in the elevator of the Glendale Galleria. Where is the love?
The lame tally of fame is enough to inspire a gal to throw down Us Weekly (snuggled in The Atlantic Monthly ), turn off the riveting Celebrities Uncensored (E! Channel, 10 p.m. Monday, with repeats throughout the week) and tune in to celebrity spotting’s demure doppelgänger: bird-watching.
Go ahead and laugh. Once the province of rich, eccentric, aging WASP’s with too much time and land on their hands, bird-watching just might be the new yoga: one of those low-exertion “exercises” (it sometimes involves a light hike, but may also be accomplished basically standing still) with plenty of space for inward contemplation, going at your own pace, gently raised heart rates, etc. Binoculars are as cheap as sticky mats; you male “gear heads” who are the unwitting target audience for Cargo can splurge on $1,000 ones from Leica. And with the unbeatable built-in natural soundtrack, there’s no need for Enya.
“The pressure just falls away,” said Sheri Wildhagen, 35, a hatter and avid amateur ornithologist. “It’s like meditation.”
Ms. Wildhagen, whose Sonja Henie–like headwear-recycled wool in winter, cotton organdy in summer-are sold at Barneys and chic boutiques, was in town from Toronto with her set dresser husband, David Greig, 37, en route to birdwatch on Mulholland Drive. Earlier that day, she had scaled a hill on Point Dume, near Malibu, to get a better gander at a green heron, and then realized to her horror that the rich resident of a nearby house behind a fence might mistake her for a paparazzo.
A low-key couple dressed in sensible knit-cotton layers, they spoke excitedly of cedar waxwings, puffet titmice and prothonotary warblers-the latter apparently the Michelle Pfeiffer of the species.
“It’s fairly rare and it’s reclusive,” said the bearded Mr. Greig, “but it’s mind-blowingly gorgeous, golden-like, lit from within. This bird has an inner glow.”
Like sex, bird-watching is better in the morning. Recently, one of those smug NPR stations announced a Sunday, 8:30 a.m., expedition in Echo Park, a Hispanic neighborhood near downtown upon which white, trust-funded “hipsters” are rapidly encroaching. Down by the lake, as bemused joggers loped past carrying Heavy Hands, a nice volunteer from the Audubon Society named Judy Raskin was leading a small but determined pack of birders.
“That’s a widgeon,” said one, peering at the lake, where ducks were clustered like C-list celebrities at Avalon.
“That’s not a widgeon.”
That was about it for dialogue.
One felt virtuous and happy to pay the (probably deductible) $5 “count fee.” Ms. Raskin distributed forms on which to tally bird sightings (brown-headed cowbirds, Western meadowlarks, dark-eyed juncos!), but cautioned that the day would be filled with commoners: doves, blackbirds and starlings.
“Nine times out of 10, it’s a starling,” said one observer, an actor in his 30’s. Bird-watchers tend to be discreet, anonymous types, though there are the inevitable type-A’s. “They’re looking at birds and there’s zero enjoyment; it’s all about numbers,” Mr. Greig said in disgust. “They could be trainspotting.”
“We call them ‘bird barons,'” Ms. Wildhagen said.
Thanks to complicated, freeway-like migratory patterns, it’s impossible to say definitively which birds will be where when, and thus the pastime’s charming mix of cyclic reliability and random serendipity. Every birder’s dream is to see the unexpected bird in the unexpected setting, like Woody Allen in L.A. “You want novelty,” said a 35-year-old television writer.
All agree, however, that spring is the all-around best season. “Everyone is in their breeding plumage and they’re singing like crazy, dressed to the nines,” Mr. Greig said.
With its temperate clime and exotic fauna, L.A. seems like the ideal birding spot, but Ms. Wildhagen said that New York City, where she and her husband lived for a stretch in the late 1990’s, is just as good. “If you’re a bird, you want to be in New York,” she said. (Not really, actually-visit http://www.flap.org, the Web site of the Fatal Light Awareness Program, for gruesome details of the dangers that artificially glowing office buildings pose to flying birds.) Ornithological tensions between the East and West coasts have run high since the 1940’s, when traders captured a bunch of “house finches,” a pretty red bird native to western North America, and sold them in Manhattan pet stores as “Hollywood finches.” Authorities eventually released them, and they have since spread prolifically on both sides of the Rockies.
Recommended inspirational reading: Largely forgotten Belgian writer and 1911 Nobel prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck’s exquisite play, The Blue Bird.
P.S.: Ms. Thorne-Smith’s former co-star, the icy blond actress Portia de Rossi, was browsing Wildhagen hats recently at Show on North Vermont Avenue in the fashionable neighborhood Los Feliz.
“I love birds,” she was overheard to remark.