For years I have done bird units with my students. First as an elementary teacher introducing the basics of scientific observation of habitats. Later as a middle school teacher facilitating inquiry studies. As a COVID principal and entrepreneur, it provided a catalyst to get children outside and engaged. It encouraged them to stop, listen and take notice of what was going on around them. It sparked joy. Since I can remember, I have connected with specific birds at specific times in my life. The robin in kindergarten. The seagull I aspired to be in Grade 2. The red-winged blackbird that intrigued me at the cabin. The eagles in the Haida Gwaii. The stellar jay when I had a debilitating sinus infection. The crow that shepherded my Mom when she was in hospice. The blue heron that graces my presence with calm along the seawall. Yet, I never considered myself a “real birder.” I am a “faux birder.” But then again, what is a birder?
On Sunday, I talked my husband into going to the U.S. Forest Services Bird walk in Mono County of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We proceeded 5 miles past Lee Vining and down Cemetery Road to the County Park. I spotted the birders. There was no doubt in my mind they were birders. Light clothing. Hats. Binoculars around their neck and big cameras. Clearly, they fit the stereotype of birders. I proceeded to say hello, as my husband engulfed himself in a cloud of bug spray. He is not a birder. Just a husband with a willingness to play. One man mistook me as the leader of the group. Clearly another husband with a good attitude, along for the ride.
Our leader from California State Parks arrived with what looked like a massive telescope and tripod used to study planets, falling stars and other space phenomena. She went through introductions. One couple from Monterey. Another couple from out of state visiting the area. And my husband and I from Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. And our birding leader, Catherine, also initially from out of state. Catherine, handed out bird identification sheets and with incredible grace looked at me and said,
“I have some other binoculars that you could use, unless you prefer your own.”
I glanced down at my opera style binoculars that I had thrown in the car for the road trip. I glanced over at the binoculars around my husband’s neck that had been sitting in the cabin since 1972.
“No, yours would be good! Thanks.”
And we were off. The beauty of this location was that it converged on three different habitats. We started off in a meadow, interestingly enough belonging to Los Angeles. The looming question of water rights has been pervasive in this area since Los Angeles started to suck Mono Lake dry in 1941 by diverting water from its tributaries to thirsty Los Angeles. Then we moved into the County Park where a Native American group was hosting an event. Then finally to the Protected area of the oldest lake in North America, Mono Lake with tufa towers created when calcium rich freshwater springs seep up from the lake bottom and mix with the lake waster s rich in carbonates. This alkaline lake that is too salty for fish has was home to the Kootzaduka’a Peoples pre-Gold Rush, for thousands of years and continues as a habitat to brine shrimp, alkali flies, and millions of birds.
Fortunately, the smoke from the Mariposa Fire did not thwart our bird watching efforts. We listened. We looked for movement. We were very attentive. We made observations and consulted our references. Catherine was quick with her giant magnification tool and we saw birds up close. In fact, after a life of being surrounded by robins, through the scope I was able to observe a mother robin feeding two babies. It was like watching the videocam set up right by the Blue Heron rookery at Stanley Park or the eagle nests in Delta. Amazing.
I learned that the darting redhead I have been seeing while hiking is in fact the Ruby Breasted Sapsucker, that is prolific in the area. The bird waking me up each morning is the Downy Woodpecker. I learned that the osprey love making their nest with the safety of tufa towers in Mono Lake and commuting for food. I learned that one of the Osprey that we were viewing in the nest was the baby even though it was almost the same size as the mother. I also learned that the hundreds of birds on Mono Lake were Eared Grebes and they were there for the alkali flies and brine shrimp. That the American Coots were not actually ducks. With support, I learned that what really differentiated a birder is the extent of the background knowledge and that something or some bird has sparked their interest.
Catherine, our California Parks Ranger, was drawn into the world of birding through a summer internship. She spent her time in a museum cataloguing specimen of birds. At that time, she became fascinated by the seemingly infinite differences and the capabilities of the birds she was studying. In her book, Birds, Art, Life, Kyo Maclear talks about “spark” birds or the birds that first draw you in. Kathryn says her husband, who also a birder in their first years of dating, refers to these as “gateway birds.” People in the group shared theirs. My friend John was drawn into the world of birds through the lens of a camera. One of the group members was brought in during covid because it was a safe and interesting outdoor activity.
What I loved about this birding group was the coming together with a quest to learn. The experts. The novices. The “faux” birders all united in the quest to see a bird. Identify it. And share in the celebration of the sighting. The process is not one of direct instruction, but one of mentoring. Of inviting everyone in. An inclusive sense of belonging emerges quite quickly. A friend at home shares that she has been welcomed into her birding group even with her less than serious interest in becoming a “real” birder. I have been coming to our family cabin since I was 10 years old. Except for the robins, stellar jays and Canadian geese, it is a whole new world of birds. Even the California Gulls are markedly different from our Glaucous Gull variety on the beaches of Vancouver.
I learned in our group to never underestimate the power of a good resource. Kathryn was quick to make a prediction and even quicker to verify using her well-worn bird identification guide. With mentoring, I saw the Lazuli Bunting, Yellow Warblers, tiny Blackbirds, house wrens, the Western Tanager, the Tiger Swallow, Wilson’s Snipe, the Mourning Dove and the Eurasian Collared Dove, the Downy Woodpecker, the Violet Green Swallow, Marsh’s Wren, the House Finch, Bullock’s Oriole, the American Avocet and lots of Canadian Geese. I promptly headed back to the Mono Lake Committee bookstore after my fieldtrip and bought a book to take hiking with me while in the Sierras and to leave in the cabin collection of books. I got another more comprehensive text of all the birds common on the western coast of North American. I have expanded my understanding of what to look for when I am trying to identify a bird. It isn’t just colour, size, sound and how they move through the air. It is the shape of the tail, the shape of the wings, the size of the beak and where they are hanging out in the habitat.
It is early in the morning and I’m sitting by the lake writing. The Downy Woodpecker got me out of bed. An American Coot has just sailed by. The brown ducks that I think are Gadwalls are hanging out under and around the dock. My usual early morning risers, the Stellar Jays and the pair of very spousal acting, Red Breasted Sapsuckers, are nowhere to be seen. A small black bird with a small beak and an orange chest and a white spot on his wing just flitted by. The same shade of orange as a robin but not a robin. Making his way from the quaking alder to the bush to the grass by the lake. Clearly, I need my bird field guides.
During COVID, I spent a lot of time in the garden with the students I was covering for teachers in my capacity as a principal. At one point three eagles were circling overhead. One small girl came flying at me with her binoculars bouncing around her neck, waving the laminated bird identification chart from the outdoor learning backpack.
“Where is it? Where is it?” She uttered with urgency as she anxiously shook the chart at me.
“Raptors section. Look!”
She followed my finger as we scanned the pamphlet together.
“Oh my gosh! It’s a miracle!” she exclaimed.
Now that is the heart of a birder. The victory of the find!
Dunn, John l., & Alderfer, Jonathan, eds. (2008). Field Guide to the Birds of Western North
America, National Geographic, Washington, D.C.
Maclear, Kyo (2017). Bird, Art, Life – A Year of Observation. Scribner, New York.
Mono Lake County Park / State Reserve Boardwalk Bird List
Tekieta, Stan (2022). Birds of California Field Guide, 2nd Edition. Adventure Publications,