You could say I’ve been a bird watcher most of my life. Not an obsessive birder with a life list, but someone who enjoys looking for birds wherever I might be. It all started when I was five years old and found my father’s copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern & Central North America. I was just learning to read, so I would pore over the color plates and sound out birds’ names, particularly the colorful species. My goal in life was to see an American goldfinch. That opportunity came when I visited my grandparents on Martha’s Vineyard, where flocks of those brightly colored birds passed through in late summer.
I’ve seen plenty of goldfinches since, but I still like to keep an eye out for birds, even outside the Bay Nature office in industrial West Berkeley, where the most common birds are crows and house sparrows. But last winter I noticed a different bird in the bare branches of the London plane trees outside the office. Eventually it flew low enough for me to see the diagnostic yellow patch above its tail: yellow-rumped warbler. Not an uncommon bird, yet not one I would expect to see next to a cement plant.
That warbler stuck around through winter and early spring. And then it was gone. But this past November, it (or one just like it) returned, and I now often see it perched on the fence around the tire shop down the street, apparently unconcerned with its gritty industrial environs.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, looking up in the trees for “my” warbler, I noticed a much larger bird – clearly a raptor – sitting stock-still in the upper branches. After consulting the Sibley guide, I was pretty sure I’d seen a merlin, a fine sighting for West Berkeley (or anywhere). But what was it doing there? Was it stalking “my” warbler? Perhaps, but I’m happy to report that the warbler was back the next day.
Thinking about birds both in and out of their usual habitats, I can’t help but think of Rich Stallcup, the amazing ornithologist and cofounder of Point Reyes Bird Observatory who passed away, much too soon, this past January at the age of 65. I’m chagrined that I went on only one field trip with Rich – a memorable day at Abbotts Lagoon. What was so remarkable about Rich was that he got you to look first at the habitat, through a bird’s eyes. What was there to eat? Where were the roosting spots? Birding became much more than looking for a particular critter; it became a way of diving into and understanding the landscape.
I signed up to join Rich for an outing at Point Reyes last spring, but it was postponed due to high winds. When I lamented to him about not being available on the new date, he told me to name a day and he’d take me out. I had no idea he was already battling leukemia and assumed we’d get around to it eventually. So I’ve lost the chance to join him for a day in the field, but the conservation community has lost a giant. He was one of those people who had a passion, followed it, and turned the lights on for countless others as a result. I hope he won’t mind if I dedicate the next sighting of that hardy West Berkeley warbler to his memory.