Magazine article Sunset

Bird by Bird

Magazine article Sunset

Bird by Bird

Article excerpt

An account of a friendly wager - and where to go, what to bring, and how to enjoy the grand art of birding

You may have an image of birders as slightly odd characters dressed like Marlin Perkins and sloshing about in mushy terrain with huge binoculars glued to their foreheads. You would be only partly right.

Some of the most adventurous people we know are birders - intrepid folks facing down marshlands, forests, and the ocean deep itself in search of their brightly plumed prey.

Birding has never enjoyed a greater following (some 30 million at last count), and if you've ever been tempted to give it a try, now is the time: the great fall migrations are beginning along the Pacific and Rockies flyways.

We're offering a list of the best birding spots in the West, tips for beginning birders, a primer on gear, and, just to get you in the spirit, a blow-by-blow account of a bird-watching contest by two of our resident birders, who attempted, on a single day at each's favorite spot, to record the most species and view the most memorable spectacles of birds.

Inland: Klamath Basin

By choosing to visit the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Northern California, I figure I can't lose. Centrally located on the Pacific Flyway, this 39,000-acre refuge is part of the 159,000-acre Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges straddling the California-Oregon border. It boasts vast, peaceful wetlands surrounded by grain fields - a perfect stop-and-shop for all kinds of waterfowl (most of the ducks and geese flying south from Alaska, Canada, and Siberia funnel through here).

On a fall morning at the refuge headquarters in Tulelake, California, about 30 miles south of Klamath Falls, Oregon, I meet up with local Audubon Society member Kevin Spencer. He's a lean, intense guy, and I soon discover he's also got hawklike vision (20/13) and is so skilled that he's often hired by federal agencies to do bird surveys. (Yep, a ringer, but not specifically outlawed in the bet.)

Right away we spot both a barn owl and a great horned owl perched high in a nearby golden willow tree. We linger there awhile, then are drawn to a small creek bed where we hear high chirping notes as tender as any boy soprano's. Spencer whistles the song back, then adds a pish-pish sound to draw the bird closer. Finally, we log not one, but three species of song sparrow.

We pile into Spencer's car and head for the auto tour route circling the refuge. Soon we're cruising past plowed tracts of dark earth and huge swaths of harvested barley that geese rest and feed in. Looking up, we spot dozens of hawks atop the telephone poles - red-tailed, Swainson's, Cooper's.

Beside a small basin of shallow blue water, we park, lured by a high-pitched honking. Overhead, a wedge of cackler geese bombs by. I cup my hands behind my ears to draw in the cackling calls made by this smaller cousin of the Canada goose. They land on the water near some white-fronted geese paddling in conga-line formation past thousands of ducks. We check off duck species at a furious pace - cinnamon teal, blue-winged teal, golden-eye, canvasback. At day's end, I've logged 65 species - probably enough to earn the new birdhouse promised to the winner.

As the sun slips toward the horizon, we stop at a series of deep pools near the refuge's south end. In the backdrop, chocolate-colored lava cones are ringed by mist and the snowy tip of Mount Shasta peeks above smooth, tan hills. Suddenly, squawks ring out over the pools and a cloud of snow geese lifts off like a pile of confetti sucked aloft in a twister.

Spencer puts the count of the flock at 1,500 to 2,000 birds. "Quite a spectacle, isn't it?" It's all the prize I need.

The main refuge headquarters and visitor center are just west of Tulelake, California. Tulelake is on State Highway 139, 4 miles south of the Oregon border. (916) 667-2231.

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California's San Simeon coast is a place where the perfumes of sage, fennel, and coyote brush mingle with salt air, and where the cries of wrentits, hawks, and shorebirds rise above the deep pounding of autumn surf. …

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