At the end of San Antonio Road, past the shopping centers, apartments, and freeway, across from the Google parking lot, the pavement stops and the wetlands begin. This is the Baylands a world of dikes, ponds, and meanders, where the San Francisco Bay meets land. Here the ebb and flow of the tide replaces the rhythm of rush-hour. Here waterfowl out number people. When family business calls me back, this is where I go to find refuge.
Equipped with my binoculars and bird book I set out on the dike trails to take a wander and look at birds on this rare sunny, pleasant, February day. I come upon a wonderland of shorebirds, and all manner of ducks. There’s a flutter of excitement as the tide ebbs exposing fresh mud. Greater yellow legs, and avocets gather to probe for a meal. In the water, ducks dabble for food, dropping their heads into the water and then tipping upside down exposing their derrieres to the sky like a circus act. Some ducks are divers, dissapearing momentarily from the water’s surface as they fly underwater for their prey.
On a far bank, a passle of pelicans sit pruning their white feathers with their huge bills. A great egret poses for me graciously by the water’s edge.
Suddenly, a murmuration of dowitchers fly over me so close I can hear the force of their feathers. then land in the water with a satisfying plop. Two swift flying merlins exchange prey in the sky.
Some of you may have witnessed this event called a “murmuration” of starlings- thousands of starlings swirling through the sky in a grand, seemingly coordinated performance. If you haven’t, do watch the video included with this post. I have noticed them more this year than in years past.
With technical photography, scientists are understanding more about the phenomenon. I think its one of natures “trade secrets.”
I am not fond of starlings
But in late autumn
Sometimes they crowd in the treetops
In a chirping chorus
Like a reunion of relatives
With an abundance of news to share
Who knows what stirs these rather uninspiring birds
To gather in in such a cacophony
Then on queue as if the din is too much
They rise from their perches to find positions
In an undulating dance that wafts over harvested fields.
Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.Mary Oliver
I was never much of a noticer until I took Glen Moffat’s Natural history class in my sophomore year of college. Until that time most birds other than gulls, jays, & hawks were all little brown things that flit about in the trees. Wildflowers were all pretty. Trees were either pines with needles or trees with leaves.
We wore hiking boots to that class. Armed with binoculars and magnifying glasses off we went on various field trips up into the Bay Area hills and beaches. Mr. Moffat was a short middle-aged guy with the exuberance of a young golden retriever. His enthusiasm was infectious. Suddenly all those little brown birds were visual wonders with names. Among the many were wrens, bluebirds, flycatchers, tanagers, warblers, and sparrows with all manner of coloring, beaks, and feet. Ducks were not ducks any more but dabblers and divers, shovelers, canvasbacks, and scoters. There were actually five types of gulls I could identify: Ring-billed, California, Herring, Glaucus, and Western. I began to recognize the calls of birds. The wildflowers took on identities of their own and I learned to tell them apart, asters, shooting stars, goldenrod. There were differences in the shrubs, gooseberry, goat’s beard, California buckeye. The pine trees became firs, hemlock, cedar, red, yellow, and white pines.
My fear of science dissipated to the point that when I transferred as a junior to a university I changed my major from Art to Natural History, an interdisciplinary study of botany, ecology, zoology, and geology. My studies of botany turned more intimate. I peered into dissecting scopes and marveled at the inner structures of flowers, algae, lichens, and fungi. Slime molds had designs that were worthy of a display in an art museum. I was introduced to the world of lichens, mosses, algae, & liverworts. I learned that most fungi were not mushrooms but rather molds and yeast. Mushrooms were merely the fruiting bodies of the spidery white webs of mycelia living underground or in rotting material. Latin names swam about in my psyche. Now everywhere I walked was a treasure hunt of natural wonders.
Eventually, I became so adept at plant ID that as a junior I was hired on a botanical study to map rare and endangered plant species in a potential wilderness area. The plants we found, among them, a sundew (a small insectivorous plant) eventually converted the land into a protected natural area. After graduation, I worked in Alaska for a forest fire ecologist, cataloged sea life with NOAA, and mapped vegetation types with the US Forest Service. I walked the sandy barrier island off the coast of Prudhoe Bay identifying sea birds on a study with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and counting the abandoned but ever warm downy nests of eiders.
Those years of scientific study are long behind me but I am still an observer always looking for acquaintances in the natural world around me. I know the name of the birds about my yard and their calls. I don’t have to worry about filling the hummingbird feeder so full as I noticed that their skinny tongues are over two inches long. I noticed that the little myotis bats that darted about on warm summer nights have all but vanished as with the
warblers, the tanagers, swallows, cedar waxwings and other seasonal migrants. This troubles me. Some years back after the neighbors sprayed the brambles on the fence line, the quail disappeared. The red wind blackbirds still pass through winter and springs filling the air with their songs. This year, the aphids did not show on my kale!
When I learned to notice nature, my life changed radically to the point I made a career out of it. Science became my friend rather than something to be afraid of. The environment became something to enjoy and protect. It is not necessary to go to the extremes I did but it is important to be aware of the natural world that surrounds us. It can form and direct us. We humans as the decades pass are losing our connection to the earth as we retreat further and further into technology. But it is important to remember that our so-called civilized lives are built on the back of nature from the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the raw materials in our house, cars, devices, and the fuel in our vehicles. Without a connection to the earth, we continue to degrade the planet to the point it will be unable to sustain a quality of life for ourselves or its other inhabitants. It’s happening now with climate change, pollution, and degradation of the land and oceans.
One way to keep that connection is to learn the names of the birds, animals, and plants that inhabit your environment. Even in the city, there are species that have learned to cohabitate with humans. If you look closely, you may see there is more than one type of squirrel, & brown bird. Watch the crows going about their day. There are communities in the sky conducting business you are not savvy to.
By naming the plants and creatures we encounter, we offer them respect and become aware that the earth does not just belong to us. We become advocates for our environment rather than just exploiters. Give your children binoculars and magnifying glasses rather than devices to rob their minds. Give yourself some too. Look up and around you and learn to notice the magnificent gifts that this planet has to offer.
I was taking an evening beach walk last week when my two friends, a couple, each pulled out a pair of Zeiss binoculars to look at a bird. “Wow,” I remarked, “Someday I am going to get myself a decent pair of binoculars” as I inspected one of the pairs. Then I stopped and said to myself, “What the hell am I waiting for?”
About 30 years ago on a hike, I had difficulty identifying a bird that my companion easily did. She said “take a look through these” and she handed me an expensive pair of Leica binoculars. There was the bird with its colors and features crisp and crystal clear. I was astounded at the difference between her glasses and my inexpensive pair at the same resolution. “Someday,” I said to myself.
Those excuses…too expensive, too extravagant, too precious, not practical. What bunk. I’m in my mid-sixties. Practicality can only work so long as an excuse. Really, sometimes it’s good to reexamine your longings, take them seriously, then take action.
I got home, did some research and ordered a fabulous pair of high-quality binoculars with all the features I could ever want. They came yesterday. I love them. This morning in bed I watched a Downy Woodpecker at the feeder with my new binoculars. The colors and features of the bird were crisp and crystal clear.
The somedays roll past
Like tumbleweeds on a desert highway
Piling up on fences
The calendar pages turn
“Someday I will…”
I declare longingly to myself
Until I realize there are a limited amount of pages left to turn