IF THE THOUGHT of peering through binoculars at yellow-billed magpies or warbling vireos sounds as exciting as reading the dictionary, consider this: at a recent Marin Audubon Society field trip to the Las Gallinas wildlife ponds, a midair battle between two red-tailed hawks rivaled any Messerschmitt-Spitfire dogfight you might catch on the History Channel.
Roughly 25 birders — it’s so 19th century to call them bird-watchers — were walking along the trails of the wildlife area when guide Susan Kelly spotted a red-tailed hawk flushing out a flock of meadowlarks. “Good spotting, Susan!” her fellow guide, Len Blumin, exclaimed. The hawk, after thoroughly frightening the smaller birds, settled on the rungs of an electrical tower, 20 feet above the ground. It was soon joined by another equally kind-hearted raptor.
Before long, the two hawks had so irritated one another that they were engaged in a midair battle, wings engaged and flapping, going after one another as they fumbled to the ground. When they finally landed with a plunk within the tower’s confines, one hawk began attacking the other, trying to peck it to death, it seemed. As the hawk lay nearly lifeless, the assembled birders pondered whether they should call Fish and Wildlife to step in. But while they discussed the dilemma, the bird suddenly rose up, flapped its wings and flew away.
The episode was wild and dramatic, and a perfect example of the fleeting pleasure of birding: look quickly because the object of your fascination will soon fly away.
As fleeting as the pleasure can be — or perhaps because it is fleeting — more and more Americans are embracing birding, which is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the country. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey, there’s been a 9 percent increase in the people who observe wildlife (most of them birders) from 2001 to 2011. Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association, says he’s seen his membership grow by almost 10 percent in the past four years. The only problem, he says, “is that no one can quite agree what the definition of a birder is.” It could be the person who hangs a bird feeder in her backyard or the retiree who travels the world in the hopes of spotting rare plumage.
What everyone can agree on, though, is that Marin is a rewarding place to bird, and that we’re home to several hundred hard-core birders. “If you look at the states with the largest lists of birds, Texas is the winner, with California hot on its heels,” says Gordon. “But California, by virtue of being a big and populous state, has for decades been a center of birding culture, particularly in Marin.”
The reason? Birds like Marin. We have a wide variety of terrain that attracts thousands of birds. According to Melissa Pitkin, education and outreach director at Point Blue Conservation Science, 470 species have been recorded at the Point Reyes National Seashore alone. Because the Point Reyes peninsula juts out along the Pacific Flyway — the migratory path between Alaska and South America — it’s a popular place for migrating birds to stop and rest along the way. Richardson Bay, with its abundant Pacific herring run (and Audubon sanctuary), is also a popular spot for wintering birds, such as the western grebe and long-billed curlew. Our ample open space offers everything from grasslands and forests to lagoons and beaches. By avian standards, the real estate options here are sweet.
It’s little surprise, then, that Marin has been, or is, home to some of the world’s most renowned birders. Rich Stallcup, who cofounded the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now Point Blue) in 1965 and died in 2012, was something of a legend among birders. The West Marin resident recorded a huge number of first sightings and played a pivotal role in the rise of birding as a national pastime. Another West Marin resident, Keith Hansen, is one of the top bird illustrators in the country and a seasoned local Audubon field trip guide. Other birders mention these two with a bit of awe.
Which gets to the second most common activity among birders, after lifting their binoculars: sandbagging. There is a kind of reverse pecking order among birders, with everyone claiming to be not nearly as knowledgeable as the birder standing next to them. Len Blumin, a retired emergency room physician, has been birding for about 30 years, is a bird photographer and has read more than 100 books on the subject. But, he says, “Rich Stallcup’s knowledge was easily 10 times greater — and I’m not exaggerating; maybe it was 50-fold greater — than mine or Susan’s. We’re still learning.” Susan Kelly, a retired techie who has taken numerous birding classes over the years, including at City College and Point Blue, has the same aw-shucks-I’m-just-learning-still attitude. It’s refreshing in this age of look-at-me.
Birding has not, however, escaped the modern world. In truth, it’s been transformed by it. Where birders used to once carry field guides, they now carry their iPhones, and birding apps are ubiquitous. There’s iBird, an online field guide; an Audubon app; and the Birdwatchers’ Diary app, where birders keep track of what they’ve seen. But mostly, there are Yahoo Groups, which allow birders to connect in a way they never have before. Just seen a kingbird out at Las Gallinas? Get on North Bay Birds and let all your Marin buddies know. Before long, otherwise respectable citizens will be calling in sick and lugging their scopes to San Rafael. Prior to the advent of this technology, it would have taken months for other birders to learn of a sighting, by reading about it in a magazine.
Not that technology has been a godsend to birding. There are also apps that play birdsong and can help identify certain calls, but drive some birders crazy. Why? Because there’s always the birder who thinks it’s a swell idea to use the apps to draw birds out into the open, all the better to watch them. “That’s not really a good thing for the birds,” says Blumin. Purists contend that the whole idea behind birding is to observe nature, not tamper with it.
Observing birds has contributed greatly to science. Every December, birders in Marin County (and around the entire U.S.) go out and tally for the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, which helps Audubon monitor bird populations over time. And “citizen scientists” help Point Blue conduct its Pacific Flyway Shorebird Survey, the results of which are used to formulate policy for agencies such as the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife. Without volunteer birders, these counts could not happen. It’s a win-win. Without crucial bird habitat — which these groups are trying to preserve — there would also be no birding.
Many of the birders who grab their binoculars and head to Point Reyes or Bolinas or Las Gallinas this month to watch for the return of migrating birds like the chipping sparrow and black-throated gray warbler, however, do it simply because they love it. It’s not just the beauty of the birds that’s the draw; it’s also their personalities. “The birds’ antics can be just incredible,” says Blumin, citing the hawk fight mentioned above.
Susan Kelly agrees. “Those are the kinds of things that make birding really interesting,” she says. “You go out and you see something like that fight and you’re just like, wow.”
CITY COLLEGE OF SAN FRANCISCO Ornithologist Joe Morlan teaches classes.
COLLEGE OF MARIN COM often schedules ornithology or birding classes; check the catalog.
MARIN AUDUBON SOCIETY Marin Audubon has a number of guided field trips, led by experienced birders, every month.
MARIN COUNTY PARKS The park system offers several guided birding walks a month, led by naturalists.
POINT REYES FIELD INSTITUTE The institute offers a number of birding field trips and classes.
View the gallery below for more birding photos.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “For the Birds.“