Bay Nature magazineSpring 2016

Bay Nature Local Heroes

Bay Nature 2016 Environmental Education Award Winner: Allen Fish

April 1, 2016

Burly, bearded, biologist, birder—there are a lot of alliterative ways of describing Allen Fish. Here’s another: bubbly.

He’s just so effervescent, a magnum of champagne charged with delight, ready to overflow with stories about hawks and falcons, about ecosystems and people. More than should be possible for a biologist in sensible clothing, he twinkles and fizzes.

No one is more surprised about this than Fish.

“I had never seen myself as a volunteer coordinator or even as liking people,” he says.

Bay Nature’s Local Hero Awards recognize individuals in our community whose efforts foster understanding and preservation of the natural world of the San Francisco Bay Area.

And yet for the last 30 years, he has been, professionally speaking, as much a people person as a bird person. As director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Fish oversees a staff of three and wrangles some 300 volunteers, citizen scientists who spend a staggering 50,000 hours a year watching the skies and counting raptors migrating over the Marin Headlands every fall.

(Does Fish speak admiringly of the volunteers? He does, constantly. But there are space constraints. If you are a volunteer and do not see your name here, it is not Fish’s fault.)

When he is not praising volunteers, Fish is in a classroom telling children about the wonder of raptors. And when he is not doing that, Fish cheerfully meets a reporter and a photographer out of season on top of Hawk Hill. In clear air under a steel-wool sky, Fish gestures toward a column of sunlight hitting the Golden Gate Bridge; the towers are 200 feet shorter than the hill on which we stand.

So how did Allen Fish end up with a job that has, with the possible exception of being an astronaut, the best view?

“I did everything my dad told me not to do,” Fish says. “I grew up in the South Bay down near Redwood City and had family who were hunters and fisherman and native plant botanists—but no one got paid to do it. I forgot to read the small print. I went to UC Davis to do environmental law. But birds were a lot more interesting than people, so I got a degree in zoology. It was 1985. The Park Service had just been experimenting with bringing in volunteers to learn how to trap and band birds of prey, and I was invited to come in and be the first paid director and coordinator of this program.”

But what kept him in the job, Fish says, was the dedication of the volunteers in all sorts of weather, the way they’d bring their kids back year after year. As an example, he points to a concrete platform, part of the military emplacement that used to be on Hawk Hill. On this platform, a volunteer had stuck strips of colored tape the length of the wingspans of birds that might be spotted from here.

“Somewhere along the line I realized that environmental education was happening here at a really deep level,” Fish says. “Instead of me bringing you here and saying, ‘Here’s the raptor migration’ and giving you an hour-long talk, you would come up here and spend eight hours a day for ten days during the migration season actually doing the work yourself.

“Many of us talk about birds of prey as the gateway drug to bird-watching because people get excited about hawks in a way that’s harder with songbirds and woodpeckers—some woodpeckers, anyway. And a lot of people think of bird-watching as the gateway drug to environmental thinking. If you’re out there looking at birds and thinking birds are important, at some point you’re going to stop and wonder, what do birds need?”

People are fascinated by raptors, Fish says; it’s as if the birds fill a hole deep in their brains.

“Think back a few million years. We’re in early hominid form. What does a flock of vultures mean? It means that there’s probably a good, big carcass around and that we, as easily as the vultures, could go and partake of that food. Let’s say there’s two or three eagles in the sky… just the fact that they’re there means there’s prey available for those eagles to survive. That would mean to you or me that ‘hey, there’s ground squirrels to trap.’ I’m a big believer that we still have those primitive senses, however much we think we’re past them; evolution is pretty darn slow.”

The most important view from Hawk Hill is to the north over the crenulated landscape stretching toward Mount Tam. There, Fish says, is where you’ll see raptors as they migrate southward in the fall and maybe stop for a little snack, but, he asks, how does a raptor read the landscape when looking for lunch? Well, in the 1990s, Finnish researchers figured out that some raptors can see in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum.

“I don’t know if you have puppies or kittens, but in order to see where they’ve peed in your house you go buy a black light and you look for stains. Suddenly, these biologists show us that raptors can see in the ultraviolet light range. It says, ‘Wow, they’re not just looking for mice—they’re looking for mouse urine,’” Fish says. “It says to them that there’s lots of prey here: ‘Come over and hang out and stay a week.’ That’s so cool. We get so locked into our own sensory abilities. Raptors see a whole different world.”

Of course, on Hawk Hill, Fish and his volunteers are not only counting birds, they’re also trapping them, banding them, and sometimes attaching radio transceivers to them, all in the hope of tracking raptor migration along the West Coast.

It’s a huge privilege to have gotten to stay in one place for 30 years and watch the changing natural cycles and be able to measure the raptor migration. I have no doubt that in 100 years, the hawk counts that we’re doing here will be critical information for understanding bird changes but also climate changes and wildlife response to climate.

They say you never forget your first time, and for Fish that came before he was ten.

“I had a deep bond with a great horned owl at the old Coyote Point Museum, which is now called CuriOdyssey. There used to be a great horned owl there named—sorry—Hooter,” Fish says. “I still, to this day, have somewhere in my collection of stuff a picture I snapped of Hooter in 1967, when I was six-or-so years old. And Hooter was my love, my first affection.”

That affection set him up for a life of watching, counting, and learning about birds. The record of that count, made by the volunteers on Hawk Hill, is something Fish sees as a legacy to pass down to future scientists.

“It’s a huge privilege to have gotten to stay in one place for 30 years and watch the changing natural cycles and be able to measure the raptor migration. I have no doubt that in 100 years, the hawk counts that we’re doing here will be critical information for understanding bird changes but also climate changes and wildlife response to climate.”

That future data, though, will only be useful if there’s a next generation of biologists to use it and a public that cares about conservation. Fish says he thinks about this a lot as he speaks to civic groups, classrooms of schoolchildren, and his own kids.

“I feel like the missing piece is—‘environmental education’ sounds so boring; maybe if we called it environmental ecstasy,” Fish says. “It’s funny, both my kids, we’d go on car trips and I’d give them 25 cents for every bird they could name and now they’re just like, ‘God, Dad, shut the heck up.’ And I’ve learned to shut up because I don’t want them to rebel against it, but I have this secret hope that one day they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, those days when we’d sit up on the platform and Dad would give us a jelly bean for every bird we spotted, that was pretty fun.’”

About the Author

Brendan Buhler is a recovering arachnophobe and co-author of Follow Your Gut: The Enormous Impact of Tiny Microbes (2015). He lives in Petaluma and is also a full-time amateur biologist studying the eating habits of toddlers. 

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