A docent and a dream at King-Swett Ranches

December 17, 2012

Jim Walsh does not take open space for granted. As a five-year-old boy in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Walsh gathered twigs from a backyard tree and planted them in the soil to make mini parks. While his brothers played with fire trucks, he imagined himself inside the park he had created.

His wish came true. For eight years now, Walsh has led monthly hikes for Solano Land Trust at the King-Swett Ranches in southern Solano County, a 3,956-acre open space nestled between the cities of Vallejo, Benicia, and Fairfield. Docents like Walsh make it possible for the public to take tours and access the protected land, which is otherwise closed to visitors because the Solano Land Trust lacks funds for operations and maintenance. That makes Walsh’s role especially crucial.

“Jim’s passion for sharing nature is obvious,” says Natalie DuMont, the land trust’s volunteer coordinator. “He is an expert in Solano County’s natural history.”

That expertise took years to develop. Walsh moved to Fairfield, CA, with his wife and two children in 1984. A few years later he picked up a backyard bird book. Once he learned the 30 or so birds in that book, he got a bigger book. At the same time, he started joining Napa-Solano Audubon field trips once a month, which he has now attended for about 18 years. Walsh also has a well-rooted knowledge of plants and trees gleaned from his career in landscaping.

Like any good docent or teacher, Walsh keeps on learning. He loves leading hikes at the King-Swett Ranches because he never knows who is going to show up and teach him something. One time a herpetologist came looking for a specific snake and off they went to look for that snake. On another occasion a geologist wanted to look at volcanic outcroppings and their associated wildflowers. Many birders have shown up in search of birds on their life lists.

“It’s fun helping someone see a bird that they’ve been looking for,” says Walsh, who also likes to click off birds on his list.

The view from one of the ridges on the King-Swett Ranch, Solano County, Solano Land Trust. Photo by Doug Wirtz/Flickr.

Walsh can’t seem to get enough of birds. In addition to leading monthly hikes, he volunteers every Sunday at International Bird Rescue in Cordelia. For more than three years he has fed and washed birds, drawn blood, given injections, and assisted with surgeries and setting bones. “I love having the opportunity to work with birds hands-on,” he says. “Being able to help them recover from injuries is rewarding.”

His favorite part of that volunteer job is releasing birds. He has released green herons at Lynch Canyon and Western grebes at the Benicia waterfront. He recently took 12 brown pelicans to Oakland while a crowd of spectators watched. The onlookers waited for ten minutes while the pelicans just stood there. Walsh didn’t want to leave them still on sidewalk, so he gave one pelican a gentle nudge. When that pelican flew, the others followed and the crowd cheered.

Back in New Jersey, his mother and two brothers, both firefighters who helped at the World Trade Center after 9/11, think he’s nuts.

“They think it’s weird that I take out binoculars and look at birds in trees,” Walsh says.

But Walsh continues to do it, and after eight years of hiking the flanks, ridge tops, and valleys of the King-Swett Ranches, this quiet and unassuming docent likely knows more about the property than anyone else. That makes sense. After all, his boyhood dream of spending time in parks and open spaces was a seed he planted long ago.

Solono County resident Aleta George writes about nature and culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a frequent contributor to Bay Nature Magazine and the author of “Song of the Meadowlark” in the January 2013 issue about Solono County’s King-Swett Ranch, which can be explored only through docent-led tours of the kind that Jim Walsh gives.

About the Author

Writer Aleta George trained as a Jepson Prairie docent in 2009. In addition to writing Bay Nature's Ear to the Ground column, she has written for Smithsonian, High Country News, and the Los Angeles Times.