Ralph Hoffmann at a Coastal Plain in Carpinteria:
Western Bluebirds near a Salt Marsh with a Nest in a Willow

Dedicated to Richard "Dick" Purvis in 2005

Robert Jan "Roy" van de Hoek
Ballona Institute
322 Culver Blvd., Suite 317
Playa del Rey, California 90293
(310) 821-9045


Volume 23, Number 4, Page 138
July, 1921
Western Bluebird Nesting on Sea-coast.-
-The published accounts of the breeding of the Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana occidentalis) on the coastal plain are so few that the following note may be worth recording. There are at this writing (May 15, 1921) at least four pairs of Bluebirds in Carpinteria on the narrow plain that stretches from the last foothill to the ocean, in territory less than 50 feet above sea level. I have located two of the nests. One is probably as near the ocean as the species is likely to nest. It is in a willow, in the last group of trees between the Coast Highway and the sea, so near a salt marsh that a very high tide would come within 50 rods of the nest.-
Carpinteria, California
May 15, 1921.

Robert Jan "Roy" van de Hoek


Just back behind the salt marsh in Carpinteria, beyond the reach of the high tides, there are some willows that grew on a narrow coastal plain in 1921. The Western Bluebird nested in these willows 85 years ago. Ralph Hoffmann documented their nesting here, and he described the location further as being in the last group of willow trees between the Coast Highway and the sea. And he stated that the nest tree of the bluebird was only 50 rods beyond the reach of the very high tides. The willow tree would have had to have had a cavity hole for the bluebird to nest in, and this implies that a woodpecker, perhaps a Nuttall's Woodpecker, lived here too. Woodpeckers residing and nesting in Carpinteria has long since disappeared, and alas, so has the Western Bluebird. Most likely, the English House Sparrow and Starlings spelled disaster for the woodpecker and the bluebird, as this sparrow and starling have done in so many areas of the United States.

Today, in 2006, some 85 years later, this coastal plain is largely urbanized with homes and a business district. However, a few willow trees may still grow here along the streams and in the backyards and front yards of the suburban homes of Carpinteria. In addition, there is an abundance of ornamental trees and lawns, both of which are ideal habitat for the Western Bluebird.

All that is needed to bring back the bluebird is to simulate a woodpecker cavity hole in a tree, by placing nest boxes in trees of the yards at some of the homes. In this way, the Western Bluebird can be restored and recovered to the Carpinteria coastal plain and near its salt marsh. The consequence would be not only bring back nature but to beautify Carpinteria with bright azure blue color of the bluebird to the trees and skies of this unique city. In addition, we would bring back some history and ambience to Carpinteria, by bringing back some of the feeling of the 1920s, when bluebirds flitted about and alighted in trees of Carpinteria.

Ralph Hoffmann made these observations about three-fourths of a century ago in 1921, not too long moving here from the midwest and Massachusetts. As an administrator and teacher of private boys school in Carpinteria, he found time to do birding with his field glass and make observation of not just one but four nesting pairs of Western Bluebird. And then he also found time to write up his observations for publication in California' premier scientific publication that was dedicated to birds and ornithology.

As a naturalist, Ralph Hoffmann was intersted in botany as well as ornithology. Thus, his comment about a nest in a willow and its proximity to a salt marsh is to be trusted as very accurate and interesting. It indicates that willow trees may need to to be reevaluated as a necessary component of salt marsh fringes in southern California coastal wetlands. Furthermore, it indicates that the Western Bluebird needs to be included in these wetland habitats. It is likely that a Nuttall's Woodpecker is the bird that made the cavity in the willow for the Bluebird to use later as a secondary hole-nesting bird. In lieu of virtually no Nuttall Woodpecker in southern California coastal wetland habitats and very few willows bordering coastal wetlands of southern California, it would seem most appropriate for restoration to utilize Bluebird nestboxes as a surrogate wildlife habitat so that this beautiful blue-feathered bird can grace our coastal wetlands, particularly the vernally wet meadows bordering our wetlands of southern California. Further research into the writings and field observations of Ralph Hoffmann will be of interest not only for ornithology, but for an understanding of our native flora as well, since he was a very good botanist. There are also cultural, historical, and recreation aspects to knowing about Ralph Hoffmann and his recreational natural history pursuits 75 years ago in southern California. His observations were not limited to the coastal wetlands of Carpinteria of Santa Barbara County, but extended down the coast to wetlands in Ventura County, at the mouth of the Santa Clara River, and the mouth of the Ventura River.

He explored further down the coast into Los Angeles County as well. He birded at Playa del Rey near the mouth of Ballona Creek, in the Ballona Marshes with Luther Wyman, an ornithologist of the LA County Museum of Natural History. Although there is no record of Ralph Hoffmann having explored the coastal wetlands of Orange County, there is evidence that he explored wetlands along the coast near San Diego Bay and the Mexican border.

Therefore, we can state with assurance that he explored the coastal wetlands of four of the five southern California coastal counties and made observations of birds. The field exploration of Ralph Hoffmann as a recreational and education pursuit benefits us today by showing us the way to genuine restoration in coastal wetlands of southern California. Further research will tell us the name of the willow that he encountered with Bluebird nests because he also collected plants profusely, particularly in Santa Barbara County.

Currently, 75 years after Ralph Hoffmann, the magic of the Western Bluebird as breeding and nesting bird in our parks and other green open spaces in urban southern California, particularly in Orange County, can be attributed largely to the efforts of Richard "Dick" Purvis. His energy and spirit at restoring the Western Bluebird has also spilled over to the south in San Diego County, as some of his "birds" have migrated locally into that county. And similarly, these Bluebirds have also moved into the fringe of Los Angeles County to the north. And now they may move further north into the coastal regions of Los Angeles County, because Bluebird boxes have been placed in Alondra Park in December 2005. Bluebirds may soon be found just to the north of Alondra Park in the Ballona wetlands. He placed five Bluebird nest boxes in Alondra Park with assistance from park personnel. Therefore, I would like to acknowledge and dedicate this brief Afterword to Richard Purvis for his boundless enthusiasm. The passion of Dick Purvis to bring back the Western Bluebird to the lowlands of coastal southern California is both a form recreation and restoration, and can also be considered conservation of a natural resource. Thus, recreation for the Bluebird continues with it interest from 1921 to 2005, a period of 75 years, in 2006. It might be said that recreational interest in Bluebirds goes back to 1892 in Los Angeles County, with individuals collecting eggs and nests of Bluebirds in Pasadena, and so can also be said to be 113 years old as a hobby and recreational pursuit. The cultural of how to observe Bluebirds in Los Angeles County has changed over the last 113 years from watching and collecting them to restoring them, but the passion for the Bluebird and other birds remain as strong as ever.

Finally, Ralph Hoffmann wrote a beautiful narrative and described the status of the Western Bluebird in California in his 1927 classic book, but the passage will be included in this Afterword in a revised edition later in 2006-2007. Ralph Hoffmann was in his 49th year of life in 1921 when he observed the Western Bluebird at Carpinteria, just as I am 49 in 2005-2006, and writing about the Western Bluebird as a form of recreation, restoration, preservation, and conservation, in describing the environmental history of Los Angeles County. Undoubtedly, the editor of Condor, Joseph Grinnell, kept a written correspondence with Ralph Hoffmann. It is well known that Joseph Grinnell kept meticulous files of all correspondence. His historic files and archives are at the University of California in Berkeley at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and Bancroft Library. It would be an interesting avenue of research, both for recreation and for interpreatation, to conduct an investigation of their letter writing on the bluebird article. We would learn more of the deep philosophy and history of the Bluebird in southern California by studying the written correspondence between Ralph Hoffmann and Joseph Grinnell during the period from 1921 to 1932. Ralph Hoffman lived in Carpinteria from 1919 to 1932, when he died from a fall on a cliff during a field exploration on San Miguel Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. Joseph Grinnell lived 7 years longer, until 1939, when he died of a heart attack, but he was active in studying birds in Los Angeles County from his young adult years of the 1890s, beginning in Pasadena. In order to conduct this fascinating interdisciplinary research of the writings and correspondence regarding the Bluebird between Hoffmann and Grinnell at the University of California in Berkeley requires travel time, car rental, lodging, gasoline expense, and some phone calls for appointment scheduling at the Museum and Library. It will also require some time-off from my regular scheduled work assignments as a Recreation Supervisor at Alondra Park for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation. Won't you please fund the Ballona Institute so that this important natural history research can be conducted into the Western Bluebird of southern California.