A Weekend With the Watchers

By Jon Carrol. San Francisco Chronicle

Wife and self walked into the best Italian restaurant in Williams, Calif., looking for the other bird watchers. From the doorway of the restaurant it was not possible to see into the room. An employee approached.

“I . . .” I started.

“Second room to your right, last table,” he said.

But, dash it, Holmes, how did he know? Could it have been our down jackets? Could it have been our running shoes? Could it have, been because I was not wearing a hat indoors?

Probably so. Our table, of birders, glimpsed from afar across a crowded room, looked like a tiny band of marsh wrens in a much larger flock of mallards. Our plumage was drabber, tending toward the muted blues and grays of the urban sportwalker, quite unlike the blacks, whites and reds of the hardy agriculturalists at the surrounding feeding stations.

Also, their eating patterns were more robust, and they included nicotine as a diet staple.

Not that there was quarreling between the species. Each group seemed satisfied with its lot in life; neither envied the other. Wary tolerance was the dominant dynamic, mixed with a particular chaotic kind of respect.

Amateur urban naturalists have this experience frequently. The ecology is familiar, but the anthropology . is pretty exotic. But unless you want to tarry at tourist destinations, you’ll be spending your time on multi-use lands, and most of the uses have nothing to do with field guides and subtly hued tail feathers.

An aspect of this encounter between the cultures had cropped up that morning, at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, the winter home of more snow geese than you thought existed. The day was close and cool with ground fog; the birds were wraiths, often audible but not visible:

As we walked along the levee, we were surrounded by muffled concussions. A man in our party turned to me. “We must be nearing the front. I can hear the guns.”

Gray Life Wildlife Area is entirely surrounded by hunting grounds. Many more people visit the hunting areas than the cute little refuge in the middle. Indeed, the refuge itself is not natural; it is managed for the convenience of the farmers, who don’t want their fields to be the only source of food for the migrating birds.

OCCASIONALLY, hunters and birders crossed paths. We looked like we look, earnest and binocular-bedecked, affable and harmless. The hunters drove pickup trucks with dogs in the back; they wore camouflage gear.

When you go birding, you think a lot about predators and prey. At those moments, I achieved spiritual unity with the field mouse.

The leader of our group was Michael Ellis, a humorous and passionate naturalist who makes his living leading trips and doing commentaries on KQED radio. 1 asked him about the hunters.

“Doesn’t bother me. Hunting is way down the list of things that are harming the birds. They’re interested in saving the wetlands just like I am. When you think about it, people who want to kill birds for sport and people who want to watch birds for sport have the same interest: They want a lot of birds around.

“The real problem is habitat degradation. No place to breed; no place to feed. Let’s lock up the golf course developers and let the hunters be.”

We were interrupted by an American bittern leaping up from the reeds, all energy and flash and grace. “The third tee,” I said. “Exactly,” said Michael Ellis.

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A Useful Primer: How to Bird Good

By Jon Carrol. San Francisco Chronicle

When I agreed to spend a weekend birding – in the northern reaches of the Sacramento: Valley, I knew immediately that I would be patronized. I always assume that everyone knows more about a given subject than I do. I also: assume that they are just itching to remind me of: that fact. .
In the past 107 consecutive instances, this has proved not to be the case, but when a fellow develops a Weltanschauung he likes to stick to it. Consistency is the hallmark of great minds, as Emerson wanted to say.

So I figured I would spend the weekend saying “Where?” a lot, and playing with the eyepieces of my binoculars because all I was seeing was a milky white fluid, and nodding vigorously when someone mentioned “distinctive finchlike markings.”

Fantasy birding conversation: Self: “How come it’s called the green-backed pursewallow when its back is brown?” Champeen birder “Puh-leeze.”

Also I figured I’d meet a lot of guys with lists. I’d meet a lot of guys who’d seen 7,462 species of: bird and were going to get 8000 or die in the attempt, meaning that we would spend all weekend looking for the mudcrowned bushtit, a bird as boring as it is rare.

None of this happened. I spent the weekend with people so pleasant they may represent a threat to national security. None of them had lists and all of them were confused at least occasionally about bird names and bird markings.

Even better, by paying close attention to Michael Ellis, our group leader, who actually knows a lot about birds but in a nice way, I derived a few survival tips designed to make you feel pretty smart while. not actually lying or forging documents. He should not be blamed for these tips by responsible people, however, because I codified them and probably screwed them up.

BIG BIRDS: Most big birds in the Bay Area are turkey vultures. They glide around looking for dead things; they are lovely in the air but personally reprehensible. They have red heads.

If you see what you think is a hawk (a hawk is the big bird that isn’t a turkey vulture), call out”Immature red-tail.” It may not be an immature red-tail hawk, but immature red-tails can look quite different bird to bird, so it’s a good guess.

A bald eagle looks like a bald eagle; a golden:eagle doesn’t. Eagles are Damn Big Birds; any, Damn Big Bird is either an eagle or a Piper Cub. Piper Cubs make a distinctive low roaring sound.

Gulls: It is OK to be snotty about gulls. No one cares. Say, “I’ dunno, California’ gull maybe” in a world-weary tone of voice. Getting enthusiastic about a gull is like getting enthusiastic about Barry Manilow. –

Swans, geese and ducks are a kind of continuum; they’re really just versions of the same bird.,, Swans look like Grace Kelly; geese look like those paintings you see in bars called “The Blind” or.’ “Sportsman’s Hideaway.” Most ducks are either pintails or mallards; if you don’t know, yell out, “Female duck.” Female ducks are very drab and really much alike.

Small birds: Also called Generic Birds, Little Brown Jobbies or the Things in That Bush There. Birders try to pretend that a brown bird the size of a tennis ball is as interesting as a falcon, but you can display the indifference you f eel.
As a last resort, you can yell out, “Got some flyflickers over here.” When everybody looks puzzled, you can say, “Leastways, that’s what we called ’em down on the farm.”

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Skills

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August 6, 2009