Ten Years as a Birder

I realized the other day that I was about to celebrate an anniversary: May 16, 2006 was the day I stopped being a person who walked around with binoculars and started being a birder. The difference is purely a personal and semantical one. I am in fact still someone who walks around with binoculars, but is more than looking at birds.

As a simple definition I’d say birding is about locating and identifying birds and in some way tracking those identifications, but “birding” is in many ways different for everyone who does it. I know many birders who travel widely in search of bird species they’ve never seen before (“lifers”) and keep extensive lists of what they’ve seen, where and when. I am very much more on the casual side of things: I keep my life list (280 species, a very small and casual number compared to many birders) and a year list, those birds I’ve seen this calendar year. My goal most years is 200 species, also a small number for many birders but one that works for me in the areas I’ve chosen to bird.

Birding for me has opened doors into other things, though: a much wider and thoughtful interest in bird environments and how bird populations change across seasons and migration; I started going on trips with the local birding group (Silicon Valley Audubon ) and that introduced me to the Wildlife Refuges of the central valley and the geese, and Sandhill Cranes and other winter residents that call those areas home, and fell in love with those lands and the species they protect.

And of course my bird photography, which in many ways started all of this; curiosity about what I was photographing led to wanting to know what species I was seeing, and as I started to study that, I started to learn about how each species live — and where, and when — which allowed me to figure out how to plan my photography instead of depend on pure luck; this path of study nudged me towards other areas of study, such as the politics of water in California (because it is so tightly tied up with the central valley refuges and the overall health of many important bird areas in the state such as the Delta) and the ecological impacts of many so-called green or clean alternative energy projects such as solar and wind electrical projects, many of which are very dangerous to birds.

The reason this is my tenth anniversary is simple: on May 15, 2006 I drove down to Morro Bay on a birding trip. I’d been finding myself getting more serious about investing time in learning bird identification and improving my birding skills, but I wasn’t sure that was where I wanted to focus my time. What I decided to do was travel out of the area specifically to explore, bird and think over whether this was where I wanted to focus my energies. Morro Bay was an obvious choice: it’s a location that was becoming special to me and it’s an important birding ares with a number of different locations and habitats to explore.

One of those places is Sweet Springs Nature Preserve in Los Osos; a small preserved area with a freshwater spring, a couple of hiking paths and an observation platform, and I spent an afternoon out there exploring — and suddenly, a gorgeous male Western Tanager landed on a branch near me and sat their singing for a minute or so, then flew off. And that was that.

Sweet Springs has always been a special place for me for that moment; beyond that, it’s a quiet, contemplative place and it became one of the escapes I used when I was spending so much of my time commuting to LA to help out my parents as they headed into their later years; Morro Bay is about half way home and a good place to stop, and often my “weekend” was a round trip on highway 101 with a couple of hours unwinding in Sweet Springs and dinner along the waterfront before finishing the trip home — so to a good degree, that was a place I hung my sanity on.

And still do. Maybe I should schedule a quick trip there this month to celebrate.

Over the last decade I’ve been able to explore many new things in my journey; I went on my first offshore pelagic (and added 6 lifers), attended my bird birding festival (again in Morro Bay) where I spent an afternoon discussing water consumption problems with central coast vineyards and Kit Fox Poop with senior Audubon officials as we explored Carrizo Plain National Monument
. I’ve explored a large area of the Central Valley to visit refuges from Kern NWR in the south to the Sacramento NWR and Colusa NWR near Maxwell. My favorites are the Merced National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos and a Nature Conservancy property, Staten Island, near Lodi, which is winter home to large flocks of Sandhill Cranes and Cackling geese. Staten Island is at risk to the proposed water transfer tunnel project the State is pushing as that project would require taking over up to a third of the acreage for construction of a plant with access and maintenance tunnels.

Carrizo Plain National Monument

Closer to home like many birders we keep feeders in the yard, currently a standard seed feeder, a peanut feeder, a Nyjer feeder and a nectar feeder. The Nyjer primarily supports the goldfinches, and this year we were blessed with both Lesser and American flocks wintering nearby, where normally we see mostly Lesser. The Peanut Feeder primarily feeds a large, noisy, multi-generational Chestnut-Backed Chickadee family, birds that have been nesting around here for many years. The general feeder supports many birds, but the primary species using it are, not surprisingly, house finches and house sparrows, both heavily urbanized birds happy in this kind of environment, but we get various migrants wandering through during the year. The nectar feeder supports both the local population of Anna’s hummingbirds and a summer pair of Hooded Orioles. We’ve recently started seeing the female coming to the feeder after not showing up for a while, so it looks like their eggs have hatched and she’s mobile again; it won’t be too long before the kids are brought here to feed and gain energy for the wintering trip south.

House Finch

Our yard has been fairly successful over the years, and we just celebrated yard bird #56; it is unfortunately a mixed blessing in that we saw our first Eurasian Collared-Dove. This is a non-native bird first seen in Florida in 1982 that has had massive success expanding its territory, and here in Santa Clara County we’ve been watching it move in over the last decade or so as it becomes more common in more places around the county — and now here at the house. As it expands territory, the primary loser is the ubiquitous Mourning Dove.

This year is a good year for birds nesting in the area; it looks like we again have a Hooded Oriole Pair, and the Chickadees had three or four families going, along with the house finches and house sparrows. We also have a pair of California Towhees nesting here (3rd year in four) but it looks like the first year in at least six or seven we haven’t had Oak Titmice nesting nearby. He was definitely singing for a mate earlier so I’m not sure what happened but I haven’t seen any sign of him since March. Previous nesting residents here have included Bewick’s Wren and Bushtit, but neither seem to be around this year.

Due to work and other complications I haven’t done as much birding as I’ve wanted the last couple of years, and I’ve been trying to rectify that here in 2016. I’ve really let me birding around the local counties lapse, and I’m trying to make a concerted effort to start listing and re-learning the common birding spots here in the county with some success: my year list is at 135 species, which already beats the number of species I located in 2015. My goal right now is to visit most of the major birding locations in Santa Clara county before the rains start in the fall and the refuges open for the geese and cranes.

And who knows where that’ll lead. After all, going out for walks started all of this, when I figured I should at least carry binoculars to get a better look at what was going on around me…