Birders will tell you that everyone oughta have a life’s list. Not the kind on which you list the places you hope to visit or things you want to do, like jumping out of an airplane, but a list of birds you plan to see.
There are over 8,600 species of birds in the world. So, seeing a lot of them is not difficult, especially when living near California’s Central Valley. As, about 25 percent of North American migratory birds pass through it.
Since moving to El Dorado Hills, we’ve seen turkey vultures, California quail, mourning dove, Anna’s hummingbird, acorn, Nuttall’s and hairy woodpeckers, ash-throated flycatchers, western scrub jay, American crows, violet-green and lark swallows, oak titmouse, wild turkey, white-breasted nuthatch, western bluebird, Swainson’s thrush, spotted towhee, dark-eyed juncos, black-headed grosbeak, red-winged and Brewer’s blackbird, and house, lesser and American goldfinch, all in our back yard.
No doubt there were many more that we never noticed or identified. An air show by violet-green swallows was one we almost missed. They fly at 30 mph, so fast that had their iridescent sea-green and purple back feathers not flashed in the sunlight, we might not have identified them as they banked and cut through the air around us, while foraging for low-flying insects (a rarity, as they usually fly much higher) in a thrilling display of aeronautics. And, we didn’t have to leave our yard to see it.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported in 2006 that 71 million Americans spent nearly $45 billion observing, feeding and watching wildlife, much of it spent at home on bird seed, feeders and bird houses. A 40-pound bag of bird seed can cost from $15 to over $100, and it can easily be gone within a month of regular feeding. Much of the economic impact of bird watching occurs in the back yard. The actual cost of venturing out to watch birds is pretty low.
The most expensive item you’ll buy is a good pair of binoculars. Vickie Gardner, VP of Stuff (and marketing) at Alpen Optics, said people often go for the biggest binoculars on the shelf, thinking they’ll see more, though her favorite is an 8 x 42 size. She explains that the lower magnification provides a wider field of view and is not as shaky, whereas higher power binoculars are harder to hold steady. The lower size also provides a slightly brighter image. You’ll pay anywhere from $100 to a thousand, though a very good, all-purpose Alpen Apex can be had for around $300.
The rest of what you need to be a birder is stuff you may already have or would want to have to recreate outdoors: comfortable footwear, outdoor gear appropriate to the weather, sun screen and a field guide to help identify birds. With those, you’re set to begin building a life’s list.
Your own neighborhood is a good place to begin. With a set of sticky flags from an office supply store, stick a flag in a field guide (one that fits your region) for each specie you recognize. Soon, your book will be filled with flags. When you stop adding flags, you’ve seen most of the birds in your area. So, move to another area, a higher or lower elevation or a different habitat and look for new species, there. If your neighborhood is in the woods, go to a marsh, meadow or the American River.
By changing habitats and elevations, you’ll soon start flagging other birds you haven’t seen before. The time you spend identifying birds in your neighborhood teaches you to look for size, shape, behaviors, colors and habitat. Soon, you begin to search for favorites… the clownish nuthatch that hops facing down a tree trunk, ever-faithful mourning doves that mate for life and seem never to tire of one another, the canaries of the foothills: yellow-breasted and greenish-backed lesser goldfinches.
Like many who stumble into birding, ornithologist John C. Robinson didn’t intend to become a birder. He wrote in Birding for Everyone that he’d intended to study wolves after earning a degree in wildlife biology, but took a required course in ornithology and got hooked on the hunt.
It is a hunt, but a benign one, bird watchers are largely social and work together to find birds in a given area or on their list. One in the group may have a gift for recognizing songs, another for knowing where nesting areas might be found. Robinson wrote, “Part of the fun is sharing the discovery of a rare bird with someone who enjoys looking at birds, as much as you.”
Differences between people melt away when they share common interest, and birding is something a person can take up at any age. ElDoradoBirds.com is a good place to find birding groups and locations in El Dorado County. The site lists message boards, backyard birds, foothill, Sierra and outlying birding locations, as well as bird walks, books and links.
Among foothill areas where birds are abundant, ElDoradoBirds.com recommends Mormon Island Preserve, Brown’s Ravine, New York Creek, Serrano, Sweetwater Creek and Bass Lake in El Dorado Hills. The Coloma area has Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park, the Dave Moore Nature Area, Greenwood Creek and Cronan Ranch on Pedro Hill Road, where red-winged blackbirds, Western meadowlark, Western bluebird and Western kingbird are common.
The El Dorado Trail between Missouri Flat Road and Forni Road is a 2.5 mi stretch of woodpeckers, Western scrub jay, bushtit and towhees. Occasionally, secretive and down-to-earth wrentits and wintering black and yellow Townsend’s warblers can be spied in the brush or high up in conifers.
Different avian species are seen in the Sierra at Crystal Basin, Sly Park, Lake Tahoe and Wrights Lake. And, if you’re up for a birding road trip, on March 16 and 17, Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton (Santa Cruz Mountains) will hold park naturalist-led bird walks, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., starting from the park nature store. he walk is about a mile with no elevation gain, including instruction on binocular selection, birding books and apps, birding hot spots.
After all, you don’t need to go bungee jumping to start a life’s list. You can begin closer to the ground, by taking up bird watching.
John Poimiroo of El Dorado Hills is a travel writer who specializes in California destinations.