Life of a Birdwatcher
Connecting with Phila Rogers, Berkeley nature writer, birdwatcher, and citizen activist
by Beth Slatkin on May 13, 2011
To locals who walk the Jewel Lake trail in Tilden Regional Park, East Bay native Phila Rogers is a familiar and beloved presence: She leads regular walks for Golden Gate Audubon to her favorite birding spots, and she’s also one of the founding members of Save Strawberry Canyon. Here, Phila shares the influences that led to a life of birdwatching, nature writing, and activism.
BN: Tell us about your early years in Berkeley.
PR: I was born in Berkeley in 1929 and was raised in the Oakland Hills. After graduating from UC Berkeley, and having two young children, my husband and I built a house near the crest of the Berkeley Hills adjacent to both Tilden Park and the Strawberry Canyon wildlands, where I still live.
BN: How did you become inspired by birds and nature?
PR: When I was very young I discovered a live oak tree across the street from my house and better yet, a ‘daylighted’ section of Trestle Glen Creek, where I saw my first thrush and contracted terrible cases of poison oak. I would also ride my bike to Lake Merritt, where I learned my winter ducks. A life-changing event for me was working on our bird badge as a new Girl Scout. We had two wonderful woman teachers, one of whom was a bird photographer who became my hero. Once I discovered birds, I knew I would never be bored or lonely again.
BN: Are you currently involved in any conservation campaigns?
PR: Yes; I consider Strawberry Canyon and its stream my local watershed. I got to know it well during the twenty years I worked as a photographer and later as a science writer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which is located in the Canyon. Several years ago a group of us became concerned about UC Berkeley’s ambitious building plans for the Canyon. We founded a group called Save Strawberry Canyon and successfully defeated the plans to construct the Helios Building across from the UC Botanical Garden. I wrote about the cultural and natural history of the Canyon for this effort. I now write about the natural history of the hills and Canyon for the Lawrence Hall of Science website! With my remaining energies, I hope to see Strawberry Canyon given long-term protection as a natural resource, perhaps restoring the Canyon to the UC Natural Lands status it held briefly in the 1960s.
BN: And are you also still leading walks?
PR: Yes, for several years I’ve been leading monthly walks to Jewel Lake for Golden Gate Audubon. Like other coastal riparian corridors, Jewel Lake and its stream canyon (Wildcat Creek) are especially rich in birdlife. Seeing it in all its seasons and weathers is a wonderful way to become intimately acquainted with a place. I also co-lead a quarterly bird walk with Chris Carmichael, the associate director of the horticultural collections at the UC Botanical Gardens in Strawberry Canyon, another superb local riparian corridor.
BN: What do you like most about the work you are doing/have done?
PR: I love most of all being out-of-doors. Each morning at dawn I stand under my live oak (which I planted 50 years ago and is now the roof-over-my-roof), smell the air, and listen to the sounds of the new day. I also love reading and writing about nature. Each day I read an entry from Donald Culross Peattie’s “An Almanac for Moderns”. I consider him one of the finest nature writers of all times. I also try and read a poem from one of my collections which helps creak open my mind and heart for the day.
BN: Do you have a favorite place to be in nature these days?
PR: Now in my advanced old age with declining eyesight, I realize the wisdom of taking my pleasures close to home. I love sitting on my garden bench under my oak, which will go on long after I’ve departed. Today I walked around the Botanical Garden after last night’s rain and reveled in all the bird song and freshly intensified odors. On the days when I am indoors, I work on the essays for my someday book I call: “A Birdwatching Life: A Naturalist Reflects on 85 Years of Living on the Hill.” I feel rich in so many ways!
She is also the author of California Tales: From the Mountains to the Sea, a collection of stories about California’s people and natural history.