Early Summer in the Great Sierras

Impressions of the Sierra Valley, June 2016
Ted Pierce

This essay summarizes some of my thoughts on the Sierra Valley from a tour I made last June. We traveled to many areas, through the sagebrush prairies and of course the great valley marshes. And we traveled through the mountains that rise several thousand feet around the perimeter of the valley also. When birders say “Sierra Valley,” they generally include the mountains, great forests and sky-blue lakes that surround the valley also.

We saw many exciting birds, of course, like Bald eagles, osprey, Yellow-headed blackbirds, Horned larks, Cinnamon teal, White-headed woodpeckers, Mountain bluebirds and perhaps 60 others. Details are below. For me a Red fox early one morning was a rare sighting and very special. The scent of the air itself was memorable, as were the constant great, open blue skies. Not to mention endless varieties of beautiful wildflowers tucked away in the woodlands and meadows. There was so much to see, and much of it so impressive, it’s difficult to summarize in a few pages.

For some pretty impressive pictures and films of the area, you can google websites of several conservation groups active in the area. Try the Feather River Land Trust website—they have a good facebook page too. This group has worked for a long time to preserve the lands in and around the valley. Plumas Audubon has info about the birds and ecology of the area too. These sites can give you a good visual overview. I’ve done my best in writing this essay, but photos add another dimension.


Wildflowers at Plumas-Eureka State Park, Mules ears on the left

The Sierra Valley is a small part – a very small part — of the great Sierra chain that stretches 500 or so miles from Mt. Lassen in the north to Bakersfield in the south; it is perhaps the most dramatic geological feature of the state. The Sierras are of course known to one and all, at least on the surface, because of Yosemite and Tahoe. But within this mountain chain is an encyclopedia of natural history unknown to many.

I’ve been fortunate to visit the mountains 20 -25 times since my wife and I crossed over from Reno in June 1990 on our cross-country journey to California. I saw the mountains up close for the first time during this drive. She was four months pregnant with our first child, and waited in the car when we reached a rest area on I80 near Tahoe. I had just driven 2,800 miles, and I was glad to get out. I walked around the edge of the lot, and came back in 20 minutes with two “lifers.” I excitedly told her I had seen a MacGillivray’s warbler in the shadows under some scrub, and also heard what turned out to be a Mt. Chickadee. This chickadee is almost always present in the mountains, whispering his wheezy little greeting to all and sundry. It was a delightful greeting for me during my first moments in California.

The Sierras never let me down in the next 25 years — from Mt. Lassen in the north to Yosemite and Tahoe in the south. Or the world of Mono Lake and June Lake on the east side of the mountains. I’ve explored the Crystal Basin area, Ice House Road and Wright’s Lake above Kyburz and Strawberry; more wonderful territory for birds. All provided new and impressive sights, as well as Western tanagers, Townsend’s solitaires, Pygmy nuthatches, Black-back woodpeckers, Pine grosbeaks, Black-billed magpies, Evening grosbeaks, sapsuckers, phalaropes, kinglets and 100 others.

All these birds and mountains have added new chapters to my understanding of American natural history. The mountains are now a part of my personal history, as much as the Maine boreal forests, the swamps of Florida or the deserts and mountains of Arizona. So our recent visit to the Sierra Valley sampled only a very small region of the great mountain chain. But it is one that has an unusual variety of habitats – and thus an unusual variety of birds and mammals also.


Mules ears at Plumas-Eureka, but found all over

When I go to the mountains I try to do so with John Muir’s spirit; he always has the right attitude, he knows he’s off to God’s country. It’s all one vast cathedral to him, from beginning to end. If we read his stories of his time in the mountains, we find he loved them with a passion and marveled at all he saw. You can see that he felt virtually every tree, flower, bird and stream spoke to him, often as a symbol of divine power. He speaks with constant joy, optimism and wonder. To a modern man, his philosophic views are almost unimaginable, even inconceivable. But when I go to the mountains I try to remember I’m walking in the footsteps of giants like this simple Scottish immigrant, this man called John Muir. Next to Thoreau, he’s my personal favorite.

On my journeys I try to take all that comes with the same openness of spirit, with a sense of joy and expectation each time the road turns. These experiences will vary and will be determined by the mountains themselves, but will always be a vivid expression of nature’s power and beauty. To see with John Muir’s eyes will allow me to see more, and I will probably even hear more. And in the end, I think, I will even be more. For the mountains, next to our own eyes and ears, he is our best guide.

Below are a few notes recounting where we travelled and what we saw.

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The Sierra Valley: Where and Why


The Sierra Valley, as the name implies, is part of the great Sierra mountain chain, even if a relatively little-known part. It is literally a valley, a vast and roughly circular area 25 miles or so in diameter. It is just north of I80 and Lake Tahoe. Compared to Tahoe and Yosemite, it is little known among Sierra travelers. Often when I try to explain to friends where it is, I have difficulty making myself understood, because they’ve never heard of it.

There has been no rush to develop the valley, and it is mostly pristine. Try to imagine a great open rangeland composed of sagebrush prairie.  Within this prairie are extensive marshes along a series of intersecting creeks. These marshes are lined with rushes and reeds that are very high and intensely green. The marshes and rangeland have very little sign of human habitation and stretch on for miles and miles. Only a few narrow roads bisect the area.

The valley is bowl shaped and bordered along the edges by hills and great conifer forests. The valley itself is about 4,500 feet elevation, and more or less circular. Just above the valley, where the mountains rise to 6-7000 feet, there are several little towns and villages, mostly on the west side, such as Sierraville, Blairsden, Graeagle and Portola. Sierraville and Loyalton are on the southern and eastern edges of the great open, flat valley. It is on the eastern side of the Sierra crest, and the Nevada border and H395 are close by. Reno is just on the other side of the state line a few miles away.

In addition to the dramatic and wild scenery, another great thing about the area is the light:  the blue sky is immense and stretches from one side of the valley to the other, perfectly blue and dotted with cumulus clouds.

Perhaps the most famous physical feature of the local mountains are the Sierra buttes, mountain spires reaching 7-8,000 feet (at the west edge of the valley) and sporting snow around their peaks even in summer. The buttes have mountain lakes at their base, small bodies of water surrounded by cottonwoods, willow thickets and great conifer woodlands. This area is idyllic, beautiful and popular with summer tourists. A friend of mine reserves a cabin there every year, often a year in advance.

IMG_4206The valley is enormous, about the size of Lake Tahoe, and has a mixture of marshes, creeks and sagebrush prairie. Due to its size and warm climate during the summer, it is a paradise for birds of all kinds, and thus birders. Birds as diverse as Sandhill cranes, Horned larks, Sage Thrashers, Cinnamon Teal, Ruddy ducks, White pelicans, Avocets, Harriers, Redhead (ducks), Western Kingbirds, Cliff swallows, Black terns, Snipe, Willet and Brewer’s sparrows, and more than a 100 others, can be found here in the valley’s vast expanse.

As mentioned earlier, surrounding the valley are little towns such as Sierraville, Blairsden, Portola and Calpine. They are generally very rural, small and friendly, often no more than villages. And beyond the settlements, mountain slopes covered in conifer forests rise to 7000 feet, with numerous lakes, mixtures of willow and cottonwood wetlands, and the Sierra Buttes. To the north is Quincy, and to the south, if you follow H49 to the west down the slopes, Sierra City and Downieville.

The different areas of the valley, if we include lakes and woodlands on the margins in addition to the marshes and prairies, have very different bird populations. These include many species of songbirds, woodpeckers, owls, nighthawks and other species.  Ideal breeding conditions in the summer allow many birds to use these resources to create the next generation of flycatchers, kinglets and warblers. Birds that will visit us in the Bay Area in the fall. It is a land of milk and honey for these creatures, at least for three months until fall arrives. In this sense it plays the same role as Alaska does for millions of avian species such as sandpipers and raptors from late May/early June to August, the breeding season.

IMG_4332The “why” of the valley is pretty dramatic, if we can believe the geologists. This is not my field, but if I remember correctly from my reading, it resulted from a cataclysmic event in the “orogeny” (mountain building) of the Sierras in the distant past – as in 50,000,000 years ago. As the mountains were being pushed up – tectonic plates and volcanic forces probably involved somewhere, given we’re at the edge of the continent  – the Sierras reached their current heights in the 7-12,000 range. (This is the general altitude, but of course Mt. Whitney reaches 14,505’). However, for some reason that escapes me now, the area presently known as the Sierra Valley collapsed in the process, and left a gaping caldera several thousand feet deep. Over millennia the awe-inspiring crater (had any humans been present to see it) filled in with several thousand feet of sediment from the surrounding mountains. Add rain and snow over additional millenia and you have a vast valley of sagebrush, creeks and marshes, abounding with wildlife. A fascinating story, and geologists apparently believe that Lake Tahoe was a product of a similar event. So there is a remarkable geological history to this valley.

Previous Visits to the Valley

Given the valley’s great natural beauty and diversity of birdlife, it was one of my goals to set up a class and fieldtrip to the area.  Finally, early this month (June, 2016) I led a small group of birders to explore the area. Of course we wanted to see the flowers, forests and geological features also.

I have visited the area 4-5 times over the last 15 years, and have seen almost 100 species of birds, not to mention many wonderful wildflowers, small mammals and butterflies. I’m familiar with 10-15 sites around the valley and nearby mountain forests, such as Lake Davis, the Iron Bridge marshes, Frenchman’s Lake, the Loyalton Sewage Ponds, Plumas-Eureka State park, Yuba Pass and a number of others. There’s always more to see.

The area has a grandeur and power that I find only in the mountains. Even the mountain air itself has a special quality– I suppose from the oils wafting from the immense conifer forests, scenting the air with that outdoor, wilderness smell. Of course the air is generally much cleaner at 4 -7000 feet.

Highlights of the Birds We Found


Conifer woodland at Lake Davis

A few of the highlights of the more than 60 species of birds we saw– at Lake Davis (about 7 miles north of Portola, at the north end of the valley) the high, circling Bald eagles were quite a sight– one of the best views I’ve ever seen. Right over us, they made not a flap– just soared, effortlessly. You could really feel the magic of these powerful birds, as they circled over us effortlessly, again and again, with their immense 8 foot wingspans at full sail.  I always remember a comment I heard referring to Golden eagles once long ago on Mines Road, said by another birder, referring to the eagles: “flying coffee tables.”  Once you think of it, it’s very appropriate.

Flying White pelicans aren’t bad either and about as big as the eagles. We saw clouds of them flying in vast circles in the sky. We saw them over Lake Davis and over the marshes too.

The bluebirds at the lake – we were high enough to see Mt. Bluebirds, not Western — were the color of the sky itself, a soft, iridescent blue – another amazing sight. Also patrolling the lake were occasional osprey, searching for their favorite food – fish.

We didn’t get as good a look at the Spotted sandpipers at the lake as I wished. Indeed, most members of the group didn’t see them at all. I only saw them out of the corner of my eye as they flew off when we surprised them rounding one of the little coves. I recognized them because of their size and flight style; they have a series of fast clipped wingbeats that are found among some sandpipers.

IMG_4230-(1)The mountain lakes are their breeding territory, and usually they’re walking up and down the shoreline, their rumps bobbing continuously. On most previous visits to the Sierras, I’ve seen fair numbers of them around the lakes, especially Lake Davis. They are, however, a kind of solitary sandpiper, and not found in large flocks like most others. So “large numbers” would be 5-10. When they migrate down to the Bay Area for the winter their breeding plumage is of course gone.  So you might say in the winter they are “spotless,” although their behavior – patrolling the shorelines—is still the same. So I was hoping for some very spotted little sandpipers for everyone, but it was not to be this time.

The Common mergansers were stunning to see with their elegant, deep green heads and gleaming white bodies. I always think of them as small swans or geese, because of their great size. A pair swam very close to us, not far from the eagle’s nest. Their bills, long, pointy and serrated, are nothing like the “other” ducks, whose bills are usually flat and spatulate. The mergansers are a sub-group of ducks that have bills adapted to catch fish, and are long and narrow.

No cougars or coyotes, but you can’t have everything, they say. The Killdeer were very noisy, but gratifying. Their calls were always in the background in the valley. At the Sierra marshes, there was another array of wildlife, very different. Not everyone saw the Sandhill cranes, but they certainly were there. They are one of my favorite birds, so magisterial and impressive. Cranes are so elegant and deliberate in the tall, deep green marsh grasses. Aldo Leopold calls them part of the spirit of the land; they inspire strong emotion. A very good man to read; a great poet of nature.

Highlights of the Iron Bridge Marsh

On the first day up, at the Iron Bridge (in the middle of the marshes) I thought I might have seen — very far away — some Black terns, a bird I’ve wanted to see for years and years. They are small, but elegant, mostly black, and breed near fresh water. They breed in the valley (not every year apparently), but are hard to find. The colonies are small and the marshes vast. Not sure these small dark flying birds were Black terns; after all, eyes – and high hopes — can play tricks on you. But it seemed like a distinct possibility as I trained my binoculars over the vibrant green sea of marsh grass far to the south of the Iron Bridge.

yellowbirdThe Yellow-headed blackbirds were everywhere, very conspicuous and noisy. (They are also known informally as “bananaheads” in birders’ lingo.) They kind of stole the show  with their extraordinary gleaming golden heads and their non-stop calls –screeching and squawking, like rusty gates swinging back and forth.  There were quite a few of them perched everywhere on fences and wires along the road. Between their size (large), appearance and behavior, they can entertain you for hours!  And a vast “cloud” of Cliff swallows, hundreds of them, were flying in wild circles when we reached the Iron Bridge (where they seemed to breed, under the bridge). This seemed to be a result of several Ravens flying nearby, on the prowl, perhaps, for nestlings. It was remarkable to see so many of them flying in wild abandon.

The small river flowing under the Iron Bridge, in the center of the marshes, was a great contrast to the miles of dry sagebrush flats that surrounded them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a color blue as deep and perfect at that water. It was blueness itself, the “spirit” of the color blue, Plato’s archetype, the color God imagined when he thought “blue.” It was so deep it went from blue to indigo. Nice to see perfection for once, what the deity intended when the world was created. Occasionally this happens, but it’s rare — to see perfection. The creeks were bordered by dense thickets of grasses and rushes of a deep emerald color, which made the contrast with the water even more intense.

The various ducks at the marsh, like the Redheads, the perfect breeding Ruddy duck (all ruddy red and bright blue bill) and the Gadwall, were also fun to see, unexpected, somehow, in this setting. The occasional willets were pretty nice, as were the flocks of White-faced ibis. When the light was right we could see the whole spectrum of the often elusive colors of its plumage. These colors varied from a deep, deep bronze fading into a light, metallic green. Amazing to see them as they shimmered in metallic splendor. The Cinnamon teal weren’t bad either, bright red in the sun. Marcia picked the teal out, I didn’t notice it, I was so captivated by the White-faced Ibis (several of them) and the their “coat of many colors.”

Driving through the marshes and rangeland, quite a few other birds were flying here and there. The Sage thrashers were just about everywhere, and we could hear the Brewer’s sparrows from time to time. Meadowlarks sang all the time, –auditory perfume — making the rangeland what it was meant to be. (They say the rangeland is incomplete without its song).

The male harrier skimming the sagebrush across the road wasn’t bad, and the Western kingbirds we saw were impressive, so elegant in their subtle grays and soft yellow bellies, very spiffy. The more I think of it, the more they seem to remind me of Hercule Poirot.  Edwardian England in the middle of the wilderness; god bless my imagination!

As I mentioned, the day before everyone arrived, my friend Barbara and I saw a Willet and meadowlark sitting on the viewing platform at Maddelena Ranch (in the sagebrush rangeland at the north side of the valley, on A23). They refused to leave until we were only about 6 feet away. It was one of the best looks I ever got of a Willet– you could see all the details of his plumage. They reluctantly gave up their perches on the platform for us, but the Willet waited til the last moment. Horned larks were also popping up everywhere, with their high-fashion, art deco designs of black and yellow on their foreheads. They were another special sight of the rangeland. I love these tiny, colorful little songsters with their elaborate hair-dos.

Diving Dippers at Plumas-Eureka State Park

creek-treesWe were fairly successful in the surrounding woodlands too. At Plumas-Eureka State Park, even with a high wind, we had some luck: White-headed woodpeckers, a Red-breasted sapsucker and even Dippers nesting under the bridge over the river. Our sights of them were long and detailed. There were a pair of them, wading in the water and dipping under the surface to find inset larva. Then they flew up to the underside of the bridge to feed their babies in the nest. They kept this behavior up, very close to us, for 10 minutes. It was one of my great moments of watching birds in 30 years. Only one other time did I have such a great look at a Dipper– that was at Yosemite, in the early spring, next to the raging Merced River. This little guy was singing on the shore, before taking repeated dips in the foaming , turbulent waters.

Hard to believe these tiny improbable creatures can exist, given their strange, perilous life style. But it works, somehow. Muir has a famous, wonderful essay on this bird called “The Hummingbird of the California Water-falls.” Written 1878, it made him famous; like any fledgling author, he sent it to a national magazine (Scribner’s). Try to find a copy to read; he has a quality about him, his devotion to nature, the innocence, the beneficence, of his observations– nothing like him. You’ll learn a lot about Dippers too. He saw them all the time, and gave a great account of their amazing lives.

Woodpecker Review

The Red-breasted sapsucker, deep in the conifer forests at Plumas-Eureka, not to mention the White-headed woodpecker, even if very high up circling a huge conifer. A Flicker wasn’t bad, and a Hairy at Lake Davis rounds out our history of woodpeckers. All fun to see. The little “garden” at the entrance to the Plumas-Eureka campground was amazingly beautiful, as if it was all planted in wildflowers, at the base of a rocky slope 1000 feet high. The sun came out, the wind died down, and the whole scene, birds, flowers and a “garden” of wildflowers at the base of the slope seemed like a paradise. We didn’t want to go, but it was getting late and time for dinner.

Wildflowers Too

Wildflowers were another part of the whole experience, all different kinds, of every color and design, everywhere we looked. It was still spring up in the mountains. Lupines, fringed water plaintain, snowplant, cornflowers, daisies, you name it. A delight to see, nestled in the deep grasses or the dark floor of the woodlands. Tiny bursts of color in the darkness,  of every shape. They really delight the eye with their infinite variety. Barbara Doe has made a spreadsheet with 15-20 or so of them listed there.

I’m always impressed by the big swathes of California Corn lilies that blanket the wet meadows. These are poisonous plants, 4-5 feet high, and look vaguely like a field of slightly stunted corn. They have wide, bright green, crinkled leaves a foot long, and completely fill wet meadows with hundreds of plants. They’re very conspicuous. I seem to remember a very similar plant from my days tramping through New York swamps in the early 80’s.

Home on the Range:  Sleepy Pines in Portola

The whole group had decided to stay at the Sleepy Pines Motel in Portola, at the north-east corner of the valley. This made travel and coordination much easier. This was our home for the next few days after we arrived mid-week. The motel is really a series of small rustic cabins about a mile west of the town, on the way to Blairsden and Graeagle. There were woodlands up a hill to the back of the cabins and willow thickets and the Feather River across the road. The cabins were nestled among 100-foot conifers, so you still felt you were in the country, even on the outskirts of the little town.


Even here, at the end of the day, it was hard to relax and put my feet up on the bed. Too much going on. Luckily everyone was tired by the end of the day and I didn’t have to do any tours of our little settlement. Swallows, blackbirds, a few raptors, flycatchers, bluebirds, juncos – many different birds, all outside our doors. Swallows included Barn, Tree and I think Cliff. They were everywhere, nesting in the boxes the owners had put up on every horizontal surface, birdhouses of every design. I had a Barn swallow sitting on a house in the doorway of my cabin. He didn’t seem to regard my head 4 feet away as a threat, because he never budged. Of course he was there before I was, so he kind of “owned” it. I never saw such detail on a Barn swallow—amazingly colorful.

I heard House wrens in the woods behind the cabins on one of my jaunts. One morning, at least, I also heard marsh wrens in the great stands of Cat-tails along the Feather River, which was right across the road from our cabins.

I think I saw the (Western wood) Peewee once, but we could hear their calls all day, wheezy, short notes, one of the most common calls of the mountain woodlands.  Not much to listen to (flycatchers are not great singers in general), but a sound-signal that you’re in the mountains. You might even say they’re the sound-track of the mountains. Across the street the willow thickets along the Feather River contained great numbers of Yellow warblers, active and singing through the early morning.

Supremely adapted to human presence and not shy, there was a great noisy colony of Brewer’s blackbirds also living at Sleepy Pines. They were everywhere, flying, squawking, parading around the grounds like they owned the place. They ignored us as they squabbled over territory and foraging rights. They wandered through the parking lot totally oblivious and unconcerned about the paying guests. With their wide staring yellow eyes and vaguely military strut they made me imagine avian storm-troopers. Not a pleasant image, but they were more comical than threatening (only 12 inches long). But it makes you wonder what could have happened if evolution had gone a little differently after the great dinosaur “extinction event” 65 million years ago.

On my late-afternoon wanderings around the grounds I happened to see Ravens– all over— and a Pygmy nuthatch. Of course we could hear Ravens croaking frequently as we traveled through the mountains. A Red-tail surprised me too one evening, flying out of the woods. Can’t recall seeing or hearing crows, however, which must be a first.

In the early morning one day about 7am a beautiful male Kestrel surprised me as he flew along the cliff face near the forests by the cabins. He hovered here and there, hunting for insects and small mammals (mice, voles). A few moments earlier I had seen a fox trotting along on the other side of the Feather River. I thought at first he was a lost dog, but not so. With his golden-orange fur, he trotted along, nonchalant as could be.

The nesting Western bluebirds, perched on one of the little birdhouses near the parking lot, were fun to see. They were not more than 20 away, and their young ones flew all over the grounds too, searching for insects.

The Graeagle Mill Pond On the way to Plums-Eureka State Park we stopped at the millpond in Graeagle, a very small town not far from Portola. This walk gave us some songbirds, such as a Spotted towhee, several robins and swallows, even a Double-crested cormorant. A special sight there was a nesting empid, I think either a Pacific slope flycatcher or a Hammond’s. It was deep in the shadows in the trees, and she sat quietly in her tiny nest. The nest was a little bigger than a hummingbird’s, tiny. Her head and shoulders just peeked out, in the dark shadows of the deep foliage, quietly. I have zero idea of how I found her. You could see the eye-ring and wing bars, but not much else. A three-foot (Garter snake?) colored gray and tan slithering across the trail was nice to see, but he got to the pond before I got to him, so my impressions are not clear.

Scouting Out the Valley a Day Early

On my tours I like to arrive a little early and scout the area for locations, roads and driving distances, not to mention the atmosphere and weather. My traveling companion Barbara Doe and I therefore arrived a day early. Exploring the valley on our first day we saw some very desirable  birds, such as Avocets and number of Sandhill cranes in the great marshes. Several Black-billed magpies flew through the rangeland near Sierraville. With their colorful and elaborate plumage they always excite me. Exploring the Carmen Valley, at the south-west side of the valley, we heard the classic Olive-sided flycatcher call, “Quick- three beers!” You could tell this one a mile away, it was so clear. The call was clear as a recording. We’ll explore this area more next year.

A Few Birds We Didn’t See

Collectively, over the time we were there, we saw thousands of birds of many kinds. But I could write another story about the birds we didn’t see — experienced pros could mention birds like Night-hawks, Snipe, Nashville warblers, Green-tailed towhees, Calliope hummers — the list is enormous —- but I don’t see the point. I’ve seen them all in or around the valley before, and many others. But this is due to repeated visits and more time in the field.

No matter how many wonderful parts of nature we do observe on a trip, the “list” of what we didn’t see (I would never make such a list, but you could look them up) will always be greater than what we do see. This is obvious, of course, and should not be a source of dismay — rather joy. Joy that nature has an almost infinite number of forms of life, too many to see in one lifetime or one visit.

Tiny Stars in the Firmament

Naturally we only perceive tiny parts of nature, even if we’re out in the wilds year after year. You need a lifetime. And even after a lifetime, for most of us, most of the world will still be personally unexplored, except through PBS wildlife documentaries. We have David Attenborough and his heirs to thank for this—seeing birds of paradise in New Guinea, for example, something most of us will never get to see in person. But still our perception and experience, however extraordinary, is comparable to a gnat on an elephant.

The continuum of nature is too vast for any one individual to perceive or comprehend. This is a cliché of course, but a moment’s thought will confirm its truth. But if we have been observant, we will have gleaned the essence: that we live in a world of mystery, marvels and beauty. Marvels unexpected even in our imagination. And most importantly, that we are part of this creation, not separate from it. The greatest perception is the feeling of being part of this extraordinary world. That’s my perspective after several decades of tramping through field and forest, trying to observe all I could see.


For the Sierra Valley itself — next spring — we’ll have quite a few areas to visit, new birds to find, and amazing sights to see. It’s only a few seasons away, and I’m wondering what adventures the next trip will bring.

Birds Observed: Sierra Valley, California
June 9-12, 2016
Areas of observation: Sierra valley marshes and rangeland, Maddelena Ranch, Sierraville environs, Carmen Valley, Lake Davis, SFSU field station, Plumas-Eureka State Park, Portola environs, Feather River (middle fork at Portola), Graeagle environs.

Double crested

Western grebe

Ducks, Wildfowl
Cinnamon teal
Ruddy duck
Common merganser
Canada goose

Egrets, Ibis
White-faced ibis

Spotted sandpiper

Black tern (poss)

Bald eagle
Northern harrier
Red-tailed hawk

Vultures, Storks
Turkey vulture

White pelican

Cranes, Rails, Coots
Sandhill crane

Anna’s (poss)

Red-breasted sapsucker
Hairy woodpecker
White-headed woodpecker

Pigeons, Doves
Eurasian collared dove
Rock dove

Black phoebe
Western kingbird
Western wood-peewee
Olive-sided flycatcher (H)
Hammond’s/Pacific slope flycatcher (poss)

Barn swallow
Cliff swallow
Tree swallow


Horned lark

Western meadowlark
Brewer’s blackbird

Steller’s jay
Black-billed magpie

American dipper

Western bluebird
Mt. bluebird


Black-headed (Prob)

Mimic thrushes
Sage thrasher

European starling

Marsh (H)
House (H, P)

Sparrows and Allies
Savannah sparrow
Brewer’s sparrow
Song sparrow
Spotted towhee

Lesser gold-finch
House finch

Return to the Homeland: Fall 2015

Below I’ve written some impressions about my recent trip to New York, and added some photos.  The story includes notes on where I travelled, parks I visited and some thoughts on the landscape. Of course there are many observations on the natural history of the area, including local birdlife. Most photos are mine, but one is from Flickr commons, which I gratefully acknowledge.


Looking west, on the left is the northern point of Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan. To the right,  the Henry Hudson Bridge and far right, Riverdale (the Bronx). In the foreground is the Harlem River. The Jersey palisades are in the distant background. For almost 20 years this was the scene that greeted me every morning when I left the house. Nov. 2015

Summing it up in a word or two, returning after many years to the homeland – this being for me New York — was good.

New York State is large, of course, and has many regions, from Long Island in the south to Canada in the north. In between we have Niagara and its famous falls, Lake Ontario (1) and the St. Lawrence River, the Adirondacks, (2) the Finger Lakes and the Catskill Mountains, just to name a few areas. I have visited many of these regions, and, as you proceed north up the Hudson, they combine to make a vast and sometimes rugged landscape. (3,4,5)

However, my personal New York, the New York where I spent much of my life, is the southern part of the state, including the Hudson Valley, Westchester, of course the city, and parts of Long Island. (6) On this trip, with all my close family in Westchester, the county just north of the city, it had to be the primary focus. Gratefully, I have no disasters to report — no lost luggage, floods or hurricanes, hurt feelings or bruised egos – just about everything went well.

It may be age — just possibly wisdom — but I’ve come to see travel in a new light. In a nutshell, if I get back in one piece, it was a good trip! Success is to return unscathed. And so I did return to the Bay Area a week later — at least as well as I left — but greatly enriched with many new images of family, foliage and friends.


There seems to be an inverse relationship between expectations and achievements: try for less and accomplish more. While I was tugged in many directions, the family was by far the main thing. Although not always scintillating, my time with them was more precious than far flung excursions to the Catskills, Berkshires or Suffolk County (on Long Island). (7) These places are also parts of my history and my New York — and all exciting to visit. But this time, there was no time for my personal version of “this is your life,” to see everything one last time.

All the details of the trip blended perfectly: reasonable airfares, smooth flights and affordable car rates. I even got an upgrade on the car, and the reunions with friends and family went well. The weather cooperated very nicely (just one-two days of drizzle, overcast or fog, no serious rain). And I had time to visit old neighborhoods and some of my favorite parks in Westchester and New York City. Equally important, I had chosen (coincidently) early November to travel, with the eastern woodlands still aflame with fall color.


The days were mostly mild and sunny, but when I left the house most days at 7am, it was in the 40’s — jacket and sweater weather. I even saw my breath occasionally as I came out into the early morning air. The fall colors were a little past prime, but still everywhere you looked, it was magical! From many shades of green, the woodlands had added great washes of gold and scarlet. When past their peak, these colors dry out to a papery brown.  Eventually they lose their glory, but for a month or two even the eyes of the blind are opened. No one can be impervious to this wild bacchanal; you cannot escape this carnival of color. As the leaves carpet the ground also, it’s hard to find the horizon at times. Above and below, it’s like a dream, the once-green world broken into infinite fragments of color. You’re part of a big celebration thrown by the local chlorophyll association, and it lifts your spirits just before winter sets in. Nature’s Mardi Gras before four months of dark and cold and bare black trees.

Especially noteworthy this time was a visit to my alma mater, Inwood Hill Park, a small woodland preserve of great beauty in Manhattan. This is where my interest in natural history began to germinate in the 1970’s, and ever since it has been a sacred spot to me. It was wonderful to see it again after all these years, never more beautiful. Parks do not seem to age.

In the parks I searched at various times of day, mostly early mornings, birds were fairly active – calling, even singing, flitting everywhere between the trees, ground and shrubbery.  The woodlands back east are very dense, profuse with vegetation, and the birds appear and disappear in a twinkling. Songbirds are frequently seen only for a few seconds. Of course many birds, such as the flycatchers, warblers or swallows, had already migrated south by the time I arrived. November is indeed late in the year. But there were plenty of birds left to see; I averaged 20-30 per day, mostly songbirds.


Without too much effort, I saw a total of 40 or so different species. Favorites among them were White-throated sparrows, Hooded mergansers,  Waxwings, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Grackles, Wood ducks, Cardinals and, surprisingly (at least for me) Palm warblers. None of these were rare or unusual, but all welcome. All bought back memories of feathered times past, the early days of birding in New York.

Small mammals that tolerate civilization well (not talking about cats and dogs here) such as squirrels and chipmunks, were fairly common. I always delight in seeing chipmunks — one of my great favorites– they’re so tiny, fast and comical. And their dashing racing stripes too! I love their big bulging cheeks (when full) and the way they occasionally stop, sit on hind legs, and stare at you!

All the larger mammals, even if present, are secretive and frequently nocturnal, so generally are very hard to find. And where I was, mostly within urban or suburban areas, I assume their populations were relatively low in any case. Thus I had no luck with foxes, deer or skunks, all exciting encounters with the wild. I did see monarchs almost every day, however. And whenever I saw the tiny purple heads of asters among the grasses at the side of the trail, they gave me a jolt of recognition. Asters were about the only flowers left so late in the year, a wonderful sight.


I went out early every day to explore the local parks for a few hours, hoping to see as many birds as possible. Places that I visited on this trip included Silver Lake (Harrison), White Plains Rural Cemetery (North White Plains), Inwood Hill Park and Central Park (Manhattan), Mt. Hope Cemetery  (Hastings), (8) Cranberry Lake Preserve (North White Plains) and a few others. Given my limited time, I didn’t have a chance to visit ‘exotic’ birding spots like Jamaica Bay in Queens, near Kennedy Airport. (9)


As previously mentioned, I managed to tally up almost 40 bird species (actually 38), a respectable total given the limited time and scope of my travels. A major boon for birds would have been a shoreline or large wetland, but this was not to be. Despite the lack of a Yosemite or even a Great Swamp nearby, I saw some memorable birds: Hooded mergansers, Wood ducks, Osprey, Palm warblers, White throated sparrows, Hermit thrushes, Cardinals, a Ruby-crowned kinglet and a kettle of Turkey vultures. These TVs were a real surprise, since I was in Hastings, right off the Saw Mill Parkway, just north of Yonkers. It’s woody and suburban, with lots of creatures and lots of possibilities, I guess, but I had no idea!

INWOOD HILL PARK   As noted above, this was my first visit in some years to Inwood Hill Park in Manhattan. Even preoccupied with family obligations, I had no alternative but to visit; given my history, it had for me the same import as Ithaca to Ulysses.

For some sense of historical perspective I might mention Thoreau and Walden, or Muir and the Sierras. That is, men as the creation of, the extension of, their environment. Thoreau and Walden, Muir and the Sierras, — they seem like natural pairings, each one completed by his natural partner. Can we imagine either one alone? And while Inwood Park may not be Yosemite, I should be given credit for taking my inspiration where I found it.

Surprisingly, it took only a half hour or so to drive down the network of highways from White Plains to Manhattan. As I reached Kingsbridge and 225th street, I was struck by the hustle and bustle, the great numbers of people clustered everywhere at the base of the IRT station. Getting a green light, I crossed over the river (the Harlem River) into Manhattan. In a few moments I was in home territory, and raced down Broadway under the El. Two hundred eighteenth (218th) street came quickly, just past the hospital, and I turned right. There was quite a bit of anticipation; for 15 years this is where I called “home.”

This stretch of Broadway isn’t pretty; it is crowded, noisy and dirty, with an industrial feel. But it is soon changes after you turn the corner at 218th street.

The park is still hidden at this point, though only 200 yards away. Then you reach the rise at Seaman Avenue, and it suddenly appears, a small mountain of green woodland in the distance, framed by the river. At first it seems out of place, some sort of optical illusion, confusing to the eye. It must be an illusion of some kind, since it cannot be real; you’re in Manhattan, the heart of a metropolis of eight million people. Green space is in short supply; but down the road, below you, it still looks wooded and wild.

It has no right to be, of course, in the context of this “Bronx” neighborhood. This is not the East Side, or even Pelham, not the outer boroughs; it’s crowded, no room to breathe on a hot summer day. It feels shabby, working class, with an endless parade of bleak six-story buildings block after block. Concrete and asphalt as far as the eye can see. No breaks, the buildings one relentless series of clones. No fancy people, no fancy outfits, no fancy boutiques. Definitely more Bronx than Manhattan. But regardless of the neighborhood, the perception that anything green can not be here — would be wrong. What you are soon to see is entirely real.

It’s difficult to describe the importance of this place to me, since it produced a major change in my outlook and worldview in my mid-30’s. I had spent the better part of four decades creating a highly structured secular, intellectual and political philosophy, buttressed with a great deal of education. After much searching, music was to be my career. But within a few years the park had undermined all this.

Its richly wooded slopes, 200 feet high, set against the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, its idyllic quality and isolation, all combine to produce a great impact on anyone seeing it for the first time – or any time.  Such a remnant of primeval Manhattan miraculously preserved from the days of the Indians, is difficult to believe. People in the neighborhood refer to it with a kind of awe; it is their special secret, unknown to most New Yorkers. For me, within several years of hiking and jogging through its woodlands, observing its trees and flowers on a daily basis, it acquired a kind of reality that most of us associate with a “person.”

Strange as it might sound to the modern rational mind, I am convinced something of the following happened: the park had a “spirit” that “spoke” (not literally, but figuratively) to me. And attracted to its power and beauty, I responded. (10) Words, of course, don’t do it justice and make it sound bizarre, but it was nothing of the kind. Whatever happened, my perception of nature and the world, and the human place in it, was  profoundly changed, and in a very positive way.


At the bottom of this hill, there it was. After a quick swing around the neighborhood, I parked and got out. I walked across the fields and admired, once again, the panoramic view of the West ridge and the lagoon. I was exhilarated to be there again. It was all the same as before — the woodland cascading down the West ridge, the river, the perfect blue sky: it was all stunning, incredible.

I noted the extravagant scarlet colors as I passed under the oaks and Sweetgums, and walked around the crescent lagoon, bordered with willows. I occasionally paused and took a few snapshots to record the moment. The camera jostled with my binoculars as I walked, a sensation I did not like; too many cords, too much baggage, around my neck.


I met a friend a little later, and we walked into the ‘clove’ area under the West ridge, dwarfed by the massive tulips (i.e., Yellow poplar), oak and maples. With the tulips and spicebush dominating the woodland, we were at the bottom of a sea of chlorophyll, now transmuted into gold. We encountered no one as we walked up to the Indian Cave area.

Sights of birds were rare, however. My eyes were darting everywhere, but no birds. Beside the sounds of jays and Chickadees, perhaps a Robin or two, I heard little. The lagoon had gulls and Mallards, even a Great Egret, but the woodland, very quiet. An occasional squirrel ran through the understory, but no more. I occasionally would snip off a spicebush twig to smell its savory lemon scent. I wondered where all the sassafras went to, or the Black birch, or even the Indian pipes, but they were not to be seen.


Time being limited, we went for breakfast and had a spirited conversation. Afterward I walked my friend to her car and returned to the park. Walking back to the “island,” I glanced at the imposing West ridge and the lagoon, now drained by the tide. I saw all before me in the moment, but these scenes competed with the past. The “island,” due to its relative isolation and quiet, had been my favorite spot for parties, picnics, trysts, even zazen. Friends and lovers long gone—distant personal history — now competed for my attention. Of course it was my history, so I gave them their time.

As I walked along the path, in a kind of daze, I hesitated to go back to the car, but I had to leave. Suddenly, off to my left, by the old boat house, I saw a large bird dive into the waters of the lagoon. It was an Osprey, a complete surprise; I had never seen this in the 20 years I lived next to the park. Perhaps some sort of sign.

WHITE PLAINS RURAL CEMETERY   A surprising place where I found many birds was a relatively small cemetery north of White Plains. It’s called the “Rural Cemetery,” right off a major highway, 287. It is a cemetery two centuries old, with great old trees of oak, beech and conifers scattered around the grounds. It’s quite scenic, with smaller ornamental shrubs everywhere. In some order, along the trails and roadways, were gravestones and monuments crowded together of every size, shape and color. I stopped frequently to read the names and dates of these, my silent companions. Many of the inscriptions were brief and simple, others poignant. I find the graves of children always the most moving. Seeing these little headstones, one tries to imagine their parents’ grief.

And even here, in this the final resting place of so many souls, the trees could not restrain themselves from their displays of color. Ordinarily a very somber place, it was ‘decorated’ with the golden yellows of beech and oaks in vibrant scarlet hues. This sea of pastel colors definitely lifted my spirits.

I went there several times, usually early in the morning, and, beside myself and occasional cemetery workers in golf carts, the only other living things were birds and squirrels. Luckily, the birds were many and active.

I was surprised to see so many juncos, feeding on the ground and fleeing into the trees, white tails flashing, as I approached. Jays screamed non-stop (this is the most common sound in eastern woodlands); Robins flew in small flocks or patrolled the lawns; White-breasted nuthatches hitched over tree trunks. Occasionally Flickers with their gaudy colors flapped from tree to tree, but now their wings were yellow, not pink. Starlings, constellations on their flanks, were common, of course, as they are in any urban environment. With their noisy squawks and wheezing, it was as if they were gasping for breath with avian emphysema. But their plumage was a revelation; it seemed unusually bright and colorful, as if I had seen it for the first time.

The soft and comforting conversation of the chickadees and titmice floated among the trees; they are also part of the common background ‘noise’ of eastern woodlands. When you hear it, you know you’re there. Generally not more than five minutes can go by without hearing their friendly, if flat “chick-a-dee-dee-dees.

Perhaps the birds that made the biggest impression on me, beside the Palm warblers (not seen in many years), were the White-throated sparrows. I had forgotten how pretty they are after all my time on the West coast.

We see them very infrequently in the Bay Area, at least I do. For me, they account for less than 1o sightings in two decades. But here they were all over the grounds, and their striped heads and white throat patches gave them a very stylish appearance. With an added touch of yellow before the eye, it all combined to produce a great feeling of elegance. I heard their charming and plaintive song, Old Sam…Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!  many times. Parts of it reminded me of our local Golden-crowned sparrows.

Seeing warblers again – the Palm warblers— brought back wonderful days in the mid-80’s, particularly in Central Park. These were my infant birding days, and everything was terra incognita. I was no more successful at telling what birds were than a baby learning to walk. Apart from jays, cardinals, robins, mallards and a few others, they were all flying question marks.

This was true in spades for the hordes of warblers I would see during spring migration in May. I worked only a few blocks from Central park, and I would take outrageous ‘lunch hours’ to roam around the Ramble and the lake, hoping for a big day. (11) My eyes would search for these tiny feathered candles rocketing through the thick foliage. In the spring, with the newly minted foliage and warm days, it was birding heaven; the fall was of course a different story. Was that really a falling leaf, or perhaps a kinglet?  What do those wing-bars mean?

There I learned, eventually, the differences between Black-throated Blue, Magnolia, Canada, Redstart, Palm and Prairie warblers, among many others. Charting the course and identity of these tiny creatures was no easy task, and took a lot of patience and humility. These were never my strongest qualities, but with good teachers, good luck and some optimism, I kept at it and learned a few things.

Years living across the street from Inwood Park in the ‘70’s had set me off on a new path, and I was curious about everything I found in nature. Every living thing became my oyster. After mycology and botany (12), ornithology became my main interest. It was a long education, this pursuit of these tiny feathered creatures. Even now, after four decades, it’s a process that continually expands around the edges. There’s just no end to the book of life — always intriguing, always more to learn. Every time I leave the house, even to go shopping, it’s a “fieldtrip,” — you never know what you’ll see.

Whichever side of the continent I happen to be on.



  1. Lake Ontario is extremely large, and one of the five Great Lakes. All these lakes are all more like inland seas than what we would conventionally call “lakes.”
  2. The Adirondack mountain preserve, just north of Albany and stretching all the way to the St. Lawrence River, is the largest ‘parkland’ east of the Mississippi River, larger than any of the eastern national parks, such as Smoky Mountains, Acadia or the Everglades. It contains over 6 million acres, with more than 10,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of waterways. This is the land of the loon, among hundreds of other bird species. Although half of its area is still privately held, and there are many little towns and villages within it (over 100,000 people live within its boundaries), it remains one of the greatest wild areas in the east. Private development is heavily regulated by the state park agency to maintain its wild and natural character.
  3. The human history of the area stretches back to the times of the last Ice Age, 10-12,000 years ago. The European-American history of the region begins at least with Verrazano in 1524, and of course there has been a massive impact on the ecology of the area by the settlement of many millions of people in five centuries.
  4. For all of its faults, New York (the city and region) appear to be unique among the cities of the U.S. in its social and cultural development and impact on our history. Just consider some of the people that were either natives or became residents of New York City over the centuries: Alexander Hamilton, Lucky Luciano, Peter Stuyvesant, Vince Lombardi, Walt Whitman, Oscar Hammerstein, John McEnroe, Robert Fulton, Louise Bryant, John Reed, Max Eastman, Washington Irving, Louis Armstrong, Teddy Roosevelt, George Gershwin, Greta Garbo, J.P. Morgan, James Cagney, Babe Ruth, Lorenzo Da Ponte, Jackie Kennedy, Harry Houdini, FDR, Leonard Bernstein, Marlene Dietrich, Herman Melville, Margaret Sanger, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John James Audubon, Carl Sagan and John Lennon — and this is just a short list. For good or evil, no other area of the country could compile a similar list of people and personalities. To write a history of the United States and leave out New York — if one desired – would be to write a flimsy and pointless volume. And it would not be a history of America, because there would be surprisingly little of America in it — at least the conventional story of the development of American civilization.
  5. Regarding the human population, there are still eight million people within the five boroughs of the city; not everyone has moved to California and Florida. This results in packing the millions in pretty tightly at times. And the New York metropolitan area, which includes parts of New Jersey, “upstate” and Connecticut, contains over 25 million people, the largest concentration in the country (yes, more than the Los Angeles area). Yet despite this massive concentration of people and infrastructure, the most extreme in the country, there remains many places of great natural beauty, with a great deal of wildlife, woodlands, clean shorelines and birds. Somehow, natural areas and parkland has been preserved. Thousands of concerned and nature-loving citizens, over the last two centuries, have protected and preserved these lands, and we (and wildlife) are their beneficiaries.
  6. Anyone with an excessive interest in my biography might like to know that I also lived in several other parts of the area: two years  in New Paltz in the ‘60’s, on the edge of the Schawangunks and just south of the Catskills; and two more in Connecticut, just east of New Haven in a little town on the coast — Guilford. I also spent a great deal of time in rural Rockland County (just north of the city) visiting friends and exploring the area, its parks and observing its birds (in the ‘80’s). Not to mention many wonderful days over a 10- year period visiting in-laws in Suffolk County, on L0ng Island, particularly the areas around Northport and the North Fork (in Cutchogue). So, all in all, I was pretty busy travelling, taking note of the area’s natural history, and having a good time doing so. I still have a pretty good idea of the geography of the metropolitan region, its ecology and overall character. Anyone with similar interests, over four decades, would have done as much, although perhaps with less enthusiasm, organization or joie de vivre.
  7. As all good New Yorkers know, the Berkshires are slightly to the east of Albany, in Massachusetts. I have wonderful memories of them from many visits over the years, to places like Stockbridge and the Red Lion Inn — not to mention exploring their hills and dales for birdlife. Out birding, you never know what you’ll find, of course. One day, not too far from Stockbridge, I was out early and discovered two of the largest (probably Snapping) turtles I have ever seen sunning themselves on the edge of a pond. They were the size of very large serving dishes, perhaps three feet long. I was mesmerized, but didn’t go too near, because of that wicked reptilian gleam in their eyes. For a variety of reasons, the Berkshires will be a highlight of the next trip.
  8. This is the burial site of my brother, Douglas.
  9. Jamaica Bay is the best spot for waterbirds in New York City. I would have seen twice as many bird species if I had visited this spot even for a few hours. I had so many first sightings there over the years, from Gadwall to Saw-whet owls, there seemed no end to them. But it was much too far away, a very long drive through the city, near Kennedy airport.
  10. Of course, a psychologist might find a spot in the DSM to describe this phenomenon, with a somewhat different interpretation. But similar experiences are commonly reported by mystics and artists, and even “ordinary” people at crossroads in their lives.
  11. These “lunch hours”, on a good day, were several hours long. I wandered around the lake and the Ramble til 3 or 4pm. Thank heaven my office was tucked away in a far corner of the hospital (I worked at) and most of the time, I worked independently. Not to mention I had a very tolerant boss who trusted me and let me set my own schedule.
  12. I became interested in the psychotropic qualities of mushrooms in the 1970’s after reading Carlos Castenada’s books. Subsequently I also learned about the sacred mushroom Amanita muscaria (from “Soma,” by R. Gordon Wasson, highly recommended. Also see the works of Richard Schultes in this regard.) But mushrooms soon became a much wider interest, and I got to know Margaret Nydes and some members of the NY Mycological Society. I retain this general interest to the present day. And after meeting my future wife in 1981, a young lady who had great knowledge of (and a degree) in botany, I became an enthusiastic (if amateur) student of botany as well. I pursued this interest as we traipsed through the parks around New York for several years, studying trees, flowers and almost anything that grew. It was only a year or two later, as she also taught me to identify birds, that my primary interest in biology became birds. But of course you really don’t know too much about birds (or any other animal) if you don’t know something about the environment they live in. There is always a close relationship between bird and habitat. So all the botany came in handy; it all fits together in the end. It just takes some time – but who’s counting, when you’re having fun? Ask “sacred fools” like Thoreau or Muir if they thought they spent their time wisely.

Celebrating Peter Matthiessen


Peter Matthiessen

Peter Matthiessen

A little more than a month ago, in early April, one of the great writers of our time, Peter Matthiessen, died in New York, at his home in Long Island. He was not only a writer; he lived multiple lives in his 86 years. He was a distinguished novelist and non-fiction writer (principally natural science), having received awards in both fields, and was a founder of the Paris Review (of literature) in the 1950’s. In addition to his writing, he had a long career in progressive politics, supporting Cesar Chavez (in his book Sal si Puedes), and Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement in their struggles.


photograph © by Jill Krementz: all rights reserved.

Matthiessen in 1995 at a Buddhist retreat.

He was also an accomplished decades-long student, and eventually Master, of Zen Buddhism. This last achievement, to anyone who has tried to practice Zen or, for that matter, any form of Buddhism, knows how difficult this is.

So much good karma in one person is hard to believe – extraordinary, really — but exceedingly welcome. I am glad that he was celebrated during his lifetime and not only at his passing. It is good to see the truth of his art and life recognized and even acclaimed.

Some of his most well-known books, among more than 30 that he wrote over 60 years, were The Snow Leopard, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, Wildlife in America, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, The Shorebirds of North America (also called The Windbirds), The Tree Where Man was Born, and Killing Mr. Watson.

He said that he preferred writing fiction to non-fiction, even though he was prolific in the latter category (including natural science, contemporary politics, travel and history). The reason for his literary preference? Essentially, because fiction is not limited to the facts (or more properly the ‘facts’ are created and manipulated by the author at will) and therefore one has more scope for literary invention and experimentation. I suppose this is true, although his non-fiction, as I read it, was always powerful, entertaining and enlightening, not to say witty. In one interview he said that non-fiction could be as fine as a well-made piece of furniture, but it wasn’t “sculpture.”

Matthiessen was something of a hero to me, although I suspect a grown man is not supposed to admit to having heroes — much less living ones. However, in my personal pantheon, where Thoreau, Muir, Beethoven and Socrates sit in majesty, and where I wander in from time to time for inspiration and guidence, a chair is being prepared for him. The vote is not yet in, but I think he has a good chance.

I’ve read a number of his books over the years, and they made quite an impression on me. They helped create my vision of man’s place in nature, a vision I cherish. Born and raised in New York, I shared some of the same Long Island landscapes he was generally familiar with. The sense of “home” when I walked through the forests of the tri-state area was no doubt similar. I am also a student of Zen; it informs and shapes my outlook in many ways. For these reasons, I feel a kinship with the man, and I would like to share a few thoughts and reflections on his life and career. For those interested, there are many informative articles and obituaries on-line. The New York Times has a good one, for example, and there are many others.

I think there was much to admire about the man in addition to his writing — although I assume he saw his literary work as his main achievement. In the overall scope of his life, I think writing was his way to record his exploration of nature and human nature. His many books may perhaps be read as a very long journal of his personal and spiritual growth.

His social conscience — what you might call a person’s ‘compassion quotient,’ which I prize above all else, was evident in many of his books. Certainly in his work on the Native American struggle for justice in the 1960’s and 70’s (which he wrote about In the Spirit of Crazy Horse) it is evident. He also knew and wrote about Cesar Chavez and the struggle of the National Farm Workers Association to bring better conditions and higher wages for the farm workers.

Peter Matthiessen with George Plimpton, Editor of the Paris Review

Matthiessen with George Plimpton, Editor of the Paris Review

His social conscience was perhaps the more remarkable because he came from a wealthy family and lived, for example, on the very wealthy East Side of Manhattan as a young man. He went to elite schools such as Hotchkiss and Yale. Yet after service in the Navy at the end of WWII, and time in Paris, he went off on his own to pursue a career as a writer. In the course of these writing assignments he explored a great deal of America and most of the world’s continents. He even became a fisherman for a time, which allowed him to write Men’s Lives: The Surfmen and Baymen of the South Fork. This last book was about country and waters very close to his heart: the eastern, very rural parts of Long Island, in Suffolk County, where he lived most of his life.

Privilege such as he had, living at the top of the socio-economic pyramid, usually gives a man myopic vision of the lives of the people living at the bottom. “Blue bloods” cannot usually understand the terrible choices people often make as a result of poverty, or the frequent tragedy and drama of their lives. It does not lead to greater understanding and compassion. On the contrary, all too often it leads to corruption and contempt for the hoi polloi. We could cite many examples, but thankfully, in the case of Matthiessen, it was not so. He was made of sterner stuff; and no doubt his parents, despite their wealth, must have given him some of his capacity for compassion and sympathy with others, no matter at what level they lived their lives.

Perhaps it should be mentioned at this point that there was a discordant note in his early life: as a young man in the 1950’s, in the dark period of the Cold War, Matthiessen took a job with the CIA. While this sounds disturbing to anyone of progressive politics (it does to me, for example), it should be understood in its Cold War context and life in the 50’s.

As far as I understand it, his job was not real James Bond material — undercover in Eastern Europe, for example, pistols blazing — but writing reports from Paris on leftist writers he found there. Given his subsequent development — his interest in wildlife, conservation and religion, not to mention defense of and sympathy for the downtrodden — this early career choice seems strange.

I think it can be understood in the context of the Cold War. Personally, I am old enough to remember some of the climate of fear that prevailed at the time. The “anti-communism” of the 50’s was real and it was extreme.

I can recall, although only a teen-ager, the constant commentary of the Cold Warriors in every form of media, denouncing the “godless Russians.” TV, radio, magazines, books; it was everywhere. And this was in New York, not Nebraska or South Carolina.

And at home, right here in the U.S., Senator McCarthy and HUAC found Communists everywhere, although no one else ever found as many as they did. However, it was no laughing matter: men’s lives were destroyed by this simplistic, not to say un-American, rhetoric. The public was terrified and paranoid about “Communist” assault within and without. In reality, of course, the hunt for “reds” was mostly cover for persecution of progressive thinkers, union organizing and social and economic change of any kind.

The idea that “Communist Russia” was out to destroy or conquer the “Free World” was repeated so often it was accepted as gospel by almost everyone. What they did – the conquest of Eastern Europe and China — was often cited as an example. In fact, Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian leader at the time, despite his roly-poly and often folksy media image, said as much in his famous UN speech, with his unforgettable line “we will bury you!” Few doubted that they were just waiting for a good chance to launch their ICBM’s over the Arctic Circle, bringing the end to everything we held dear – such as life. Once begun, we knew, this war would bring the end of civilization as we knew it, world-wide. Not a pleasant prospect. Sputnik, the Korean War, revolutionary movements in Africa and Latin America — not to mention Fidel Castro — only made it worse.

And it was true that atrocities were committed by Communist armies and movements in various parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe. Hungary was a dramatic example; Russian tanks and troops entering Budapest in 1956 was certain and visual “proof” of anti-communist rhetoric. Czechoslovakia was another example. Despite many thousands of U.S. troops in Europe, in defense against just such a Russian invasion, these events could not be stopped.

It was therefore understood by most Americans that we had to protect the “Free World” by manipulating, whenever necessary, the political affairs of nations around the world. Otherwise we were doomed; the whole world would gradually become “red,” or at least pink. If this included overthrowing a dangerous government now and then, like Iran or Guatamala, or supporting vicious Latin American dictators, like Batista or Trujillo, or invading foreign countries when necessary (Vietnam, Dominican Republic, Panama), it could not be avoided. Unfortunate, no doubt, but necessary.

So this is the context in which I consider Matthiessen’s job as a CIA agent in the 1950’s. He may have fallen to some extent for Cold War rhetoric, or merely needed a free ticket to Paris (as he joked). A friend of mine who knew him at Hotchkiss (high school) said he was something of a rebel, and wore a python around his shoulders when he went to class. This does not quite jibe in my mind with a career in the CIA, but I guess I could be mistaken.

I have not read his biography or read his CIA reports, so I am not sure exactly what to think. According to some accounts, he said this assignment allowed him to further his literary career. It seems clear that he co-founded the Paris Review as cover for his “mission.” (When George Plimpton, subsequent editor of the magazine and a childhood friend, found out about the CIA connection, he was outraged.) In any case, he soon left “the company” and joined humanity again, this time on the right side.

I never met him in person, unfortunately. He did not make many public appearances that I, at least, was aware of. Especially out here in California for the last two decades, I was busy raising my family, teaching courses and exploring the state. I found many glorious spots, and not a few wonderful birds, but my free time was very limited. If he came to California, I found out about it after he left. My contact with him was thus through the printed page. However, as all readers know, books – well-written books – illuminate the souls of both writer and reader to such an extent that they give rise to passionate attachments.

Peter Matthiessen editing a manuscript

Matthiessen editing a manuscript.

Over the years I found several of his books on birds and wildlife that made a great impression on me. I loved (and still do) his style of writing, which was a mixture of erudition, “restraint,” poetic reflection and wry wit. It was a style I tried to copy over the years, since you want to reproduce what you admire. But despite my admiration, it did not flow naturally from my pen.

After a time I reasoned that his taciturn yet poetic style was a mirror of the man, and it was the man himself that could not be reproduced, much less his style. If I am any judge of my own writing, I tend to the baroque and confessional, with effusive asides. And the narrative is sometimes interrupted with tangents — even asteroids — of thought that deflect the body of the narrative from its original intended path.

Almost regardless of my personal taste, this style, chaotic as it appears to me, seems to be the essence of what is churning in my brain, trying to get out. Endless observations on all and sundry, good use of vocabulary, occasional striking images, but with a thin narrative thread. I suppose, of course, the same could be said, in spades, of “Leaves of Grass.” Yet it is considered a classic – despite being, in my mind at least, almost a random collection of thoughts. Imagery yes, but in the end, the only link the man and mind of Whitman. Equally so here: I am the link, the fountain of all this reflection; so many years of thought and wonder — what else could it be?

Regarding Matthiessen—the subject of this essay — I first found his books in a roundabout way. It actually came about, if we consider ultimate causes and the chain of causality in the development of our lives, as a result of my move to New York City in the early 70’s. The connection is as follows:

Needing a place to live, I moved to the community of Inwood. This little-known area was (still is) situated at the very northern tip of Manhattan. The neighborhood itself was no great shakes, no great architecture or cultural attractions (except the Cloisters), but it contained the most beautiful park I had ever seen.

This park, called “Inwood Hill,” was smallish, no more than 100 acres, but it had many dramatic features that added up to an overwhelming visual impression. The central portion was a forested plateau 200-feet high, which rose steeply from the surrounding fields. On the western boundary of the park was the mighty Hudson River, and to the north was the Harlem (River). The woodlands of the Y-shaped ridge were covered with oak, hickory, beech, tulip and maple, with a thick understory of sassafras, spicebush, viburnum and dogwood. Numerous wildflowers rose from the forest floor; birds and butterflies flew among the woodland.

Best of all, the elevated, forested area was almost never visited by the local residents, so when strolling through, you could imagine you were far away from the city, perhaps in the Catskills. And from the top, there were wonderful views of the Palisades across the river, very dramatic in themselves. You could see Riverdale beyond the Harlem to the north, and far to the east, the Bronx.

The park, I discovered, was the last remaining piece of New Amsterdam, the wilderness that greeted the early Dutch in the 1600’s. Miraculous was the only word for it — visually, naturally and historically. Everyone shook their head over it, nonplussed, but were delighted it existed. You must consider that only miles away, in the surrounding city of New York, the great metropolis, over the last 400 years millions of people have lived and died. Somehow, by a series of historical accidents, it survived.

I spent a part of every day in my new-found Walden, if only on the way to the subway. Its beauty, especially the little lagoon made by a bend in the Harlem River, not far from my building on 218th street, was hard to believe.

Over time, due to my daily immersion in the park, I began to notice the details of many of the trees, flowers and birds. They began to take on individual identities, almost personalities. Beyond obvious differences, I had previously never taken the time to look closely at these wild living things. I noticed that a willow was very different than an oak. And a swan very different than a duck. Kingfishers, herons, cormorants, hawks, all lived there, and all very different. I had time to look, and I did, more and more carefully. When you looked closely, the beauty and incredible craft of nature could be seen, and I marveled at it.

In several years, through walking, jogging and wandering through the woodland and fields, the park itself began to take on a “personality.” It was hard to describe, but I began to feel that these plants and animals were related, part of a larger living organism.

Mystical yes, but a real feeling I had, after tramping through the park, again and again. You could look at each individual tree, or take in the whole park, which was the home of all these plants and animals. Strange, perhaps, but a real perception, and most wonderful of all, a comforting and profound perception — that was part of it. By the grace of something, I was a part of it. Naturally, it was my birthright. I had only to open my eyes and see. Looking back, I can see that these years were perhaps the most important of my life, and had the most importance in shaping its eventual outcome. Only later would birds become my primary interest in natural science.

As a result of these epiphanies in the park, in the late 70’s and early 1980’s, that I began to take a much greater interest in natural science. It was then I found Matthiessen’s book, Wildlife in America, which had been out for two decades at that time.

Wildlife in America was Matthiessen’s first non-fiction book, written in the late 50’s. It was the story of a wild America that was profoundly changed by the arrival of Europeans. They arrived with their vast numbers, diseases and technology, all of which eventually devastated both Indians and wildlife .

He was still very young, in his early 30s and back from Paris. He reportedly took several years to visit all the national wildlife refuges in the country to research the subject, often camping out. (The book is dedicated to his parents, Erard and Elizabeth, “with love and many thanks”)

The book described the plants and animals of America prior to 1500. The birds, mammals and fish lived here in astronomical numbers – and relative balance — with the Native Americans. I learned of the fabulous hurricanes of Passenger pigeons (in the billions) that flew over the eastern forests, and lobsters in the Hudson that grew to six feet long. The fate of the Steller’s Seacow, a whale-sized sirenian (a manatee-like mammal) stunned me. I was not aware of its existence until I read about it at that time. It was killed off by Russian seal and otter hunters in the Aleutians in the 1700’s, almost as soon as they found it.

The well-known fate of the buffalo tells the tale in a nutshell. The prairies, a vast area stretching hundreds of miles from Missouri to the Rockies, were covered with herds of bison. They roamed and thundered in the millions, but by the late 1800’s there only remained great mounds of their bleaching white skeletons. Skeletons and a great silence, relieved by meadowlarks and the constant wind.

These and many other creatures were hunted into oblivion by the settlers. Hundreds of animals and birds went from incalculable numbers to insignificant ciphers. They became almost legendary beings, like the Carolina Parakeet or eastern Prairie chicken. This often happened within a century or two as the pioneers blasted their way west.

It was a sad tale of the conquest of the American continent, stolen from its original inhabitants, both human and faunal. How many Indian tribes went “extinct” from smallpox and small arms fire? One might say that the destruction of American wildlife was “collateral” damage to the overall conquest of the human inhabitants, the theft of a continent. (Matthiessen mentions but does not focus on the fate of Native American tribes here).

The last few chapters of the book note the birth of the 19th and 20th century conservation movement, which gives some hope for the future. But all told, it was a heart-breaking story, one I had not thought about in any great detail until that time.

Matthiessen’s book, among others by Kastner, Thoreau, Krutch, Thomas and others, had a noticable impact on me, and helped to enlarge my growing sense of man’s place within nature. And his unfortunate, almost unconscious, millennia-long destructive impact on nature.

Later in the decade, the late 80’s, I read At Play in the Fields of the Lord, one of his earlier novels. It is about two Christian missionaries in the Amazon, and their lives among the native peoples and the Amazon itself. However, I didn’t like it, despite its imagery and sensitivity to the life of the rainforest. I thought its message was murky and the ending nebulous. When it came to the end, it seemed to just fade out, not “end.”

Much later I found (given by a friend, actually) The Shorebirds of North America, a large and beautiful book with a text by Matthiessen and paintings by Robert Clem. Its subject is the lives and behaviors of sandpipers, avocets and plovers; really, all things Charadriidae and Scolopacidae. A separate paperback edition, with only Matthiessen’s text, is called The Windbirds.

It has a great store of shorebird biology, written with his usual grace and erudition. The book is a great way to learn bird biology; he mixes fact with the near-fiction of their lives — ocean wanderers, seafood gleaners, mudflat ramblers, gale riders and, finally, if fortunate, inter-hemispheric survivors. Whence comes their navigation systems, we wonder? Where is their longitude? Not from Greenwich, since they were there long before Britain. Whatever their GPS, it is found in their tiny, almost weightless brains. Only an ounce of protoplasm, and contained within, the knowledge of the stars. With their perilous lives, by the rules of biology we can’t speak of “courage,” but we must surely feel it.

Hand-held, deficient in avoirdupois, their feathery scimitar flights skimming over the seas, who can fathom these creatures? Matthiessen can, and did in this book. As I read it, I could picture them, as much as I do when I see my local plover at Pt. Isabel.

The poetry, mystery, the unfathomability of shorebirds, everything biology books carefully hide from us, is in this book. A great medley of shorebird lore, written as a prose poem. Perhaps a modern version, with the same spiritual depths, as The Ancient Mariner. The text flows like a mountain stream, but with the overall gravity of a great bay or sea. My favorite among his books I have read, I think.

Some of my students may remember it because I often read it to them in my classes. Especially when we were studying the poignant, wind-driven world of curlews, plovers and the all-too-frequently-anonymous peeps.

My last acquaintance of his books was The Birds of Paradise: Travels with Cranes. This book, little more than a decade old, is his chronicle of journeys spanning the world searching for those princely birds, the cranes. Anyone who has seen one of these birds, such as our native Sandhill, knows how moving this experience is. When I see them I feel an almost magical quality, difficult to put into words. Discounting mere grace and beauty, it seems an encounter with an alternative form of intelligence.

They have been admired, even worshiped, the world over, for millennia. Again, with this book, we delve deeper into the avian soul and its meaning for humans. There are numerous accounts of travels in Siberia, China and Korea in the search of these cosmic messengers, together with George Archibald, a crane shaman, insofar as we have one. This book is also greatly worth reading for its insights and observations, not only on cranes, but the world they – and we – inhabit. Together we win or lose the earth, equally.

Peter Matthiessen has now, as we all must, passed into eternity. All adults, from frequent and painful experience, know that this is the law of the cosmos, from stars to starfish. Birth and death, in an endless cycle. No emperor, no man, no child, no being, despite his eminence — and all our tears — can be above or change this law.

For conscious beings, the prospect of our demise, and that of our loved ones, is the most difficult truth to accept. Except that we know, somewhere in our hearts, that this truth allows heaven and earth to endlessly create new worlds.

Seen in collective terms, where the individual is part of the universal, birth and death is not a tragedy. For me it is analogous to the insight I was given at Inwood Park years ago.

This at least is my understanding of a life spent observing nature. I am not sure what other understanding can be found in nature. I am also not sure if it was Matthiessen’s understanding. As a Buddhist, perhaps.

Perhaps his epigraph from The Birds of Heaven is a good way to say farewell to Matthiessen, who illuminated the world of nature for so many. It expresses the beauty and fragility of life in a Buddhist sense, from a haiku by the Japanese Zen master Dogon:

The world?
Moonlit water drops
From the crane’s bill.

Birding Among the Cranes: Discovering Oakland’s Shoreline Park

Shoreline Park, Oakland, March 16, 2013


Flock of Redwings soar over us.

Traveling through downtown Oakland a few months ago with my friend John Kirkmire, it was a bright, sunny Saturday, and we were on our way to do some birding. However, despite the pleasant weather and the upcoming chance to see some birds, I was apprehensive.

It was our destination that troubled me; we were on our way to Shoreline Park. This is a tiny park set in deepest industrial Oakland, in the Middle Harbor, set between the giant cranes of the Port of Oakland and the eastern terminus of the Bay Bridge (little more than a mile away).

From the map, you could see that the park was a narrow strip of green, with perhaps a mile of shoreline. I had never been there, since it’s not the kind of place I would choose for a scenic drive, much less birding. The location seemed antithetical to nature study of any kind. But I had been told by several friends, including John, that despite its location, this little crescent of shoreline harbored many birds, including ducks, shorebirds, grebes, gulls and even songbirds.

Foraging Yellow-rump warbler

Foraging Yellow-rump warbler

So when John offered to drive me down to the park, I wondered about it. However, as an East Bay birding personage (I’m not sure I’ve reached the level of authority yet, or for that matter, who gives out these designations), I figured I needed to know about every local birding location, including this one. So I stowed my apprehensions, drove down to his place near Lake Merritt, put on my most nonchalant air, and said “Let’s go!”

As we passed through an increasingly bleak industrial landscape, past Adeline, past 880, to Middle Harbor Road, my anxiety continued.  It was one block after another of anonymous gray buildings: large industrial/factory sites, chain-link fences, warehouses, vacant parking lots and railroad tracks. Forbiddingly inhuman. Occasionally, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the giant cranes in the distance.

After a short time driving, however, it suddenly became green to our left, and I could see the blue of the Oakland harbor beyond the park. We had reached Shoreline, and it looked fairly attractive after all, very pretty indeed. Not many trees, not very big, it was mostly green lawns sloping down to a crescent-shaped shoreline that stretched a mile or so to the south.

Beyond the parking lots and green lawns, you could see the tide was very low, which exposed hundreds of yards of mudflats. Best of all, both the mudflats and water were teeming with birds. Even before I took out my binocs for a better look, the tiny silhouettes looked reassuringly like shorebirds, ducks and grebes, among others.

Stepping out of the car, the giant cranes, the closest a quarter-mile away, were not too obtrusive. You only noticed them out of the corner of your eye, if you focused on the water. Straight ahead, across the bay, you could see San Francisco. You would never know it contained almost a million lives within its spiky blue-gray skyline – souls, people — all were invisible at this distance.

View of San Francisco & the Bay from Shoreline Park

View of San Francisco & the Bay from Shoreline Park

On our right, the Bay Bridge stood very close to us, a little more than a mile away. You could feel its power and its gravity very strongly. Looking up from our vantage point, from the water’s edge, it was hundreds of feet above us. It soared up several hundred feet into the sky, and you almost had to brace your feet to resist its pull. It was near-galactic in its mass, a black hole, the urban equivalent of the Grand Canyon.

But along the shoreline ahead of us, on the brown mud and in the blue water, birds of all kinds floated, foraged, swam and flew. Gulls, probably Western, flew in concentric patterns over us, searching for prey, their loud insistent calls echoing all along the shore.

Combined with the sun, the water, the pungent salt air, the expansive views and great sense of space, the sharp screams of the gulls, in great piercing waves, add their part to the excitement of the marine world. And thus was it today also; amidst all this stimulus our spirits could not help but rise.

I went into action: standing on the promenade that circled the park, I was in a good position to see a great deal of the waters spread out below us. Turning  90-degrees or so from right to left and back again, I saw, in quick succession, Ruddies, Canvasback, Western or Clark’s grebes, female scaup and Widgeon and an occasional cormorant. They were in small groups or individuals, almost randomly spread out over the water, possibly 50-60 birds total.


Ted at work

After 20 minutes here, we drove back to a lot within the park, and walked down toward the water. We passed one or two Black phoebes, large groups of Brewer’s blackbirds among the trees and bushes, noisy crows flying overhead – not to mention pigeons, of course — and blood-red House finches singing their hearts out. One lonely Tree swallow swooped and swerved in graceful arabesques, but separated from his mates.

Avocet at the water's edge

Avocet at the water’s edge

Walking cautiously over the still-wet sandbars and mudflats, shorebirds appeared everywhere. Avocets, already pretty in their peach headgear, swept the water with their stiletto bills; Killdeer crept delicately over the sand, pausing now and then to listen. Black-belly plover, equally dainty, denuded of their dark bellies for another few weeks, plied the muddy beach. I spied some Semi-palmated plover off to our right, and I called out to John to make sure he saw them. These tiny plover appear to be “baby killdeer,” but they are a separate species. They were probably a first for him. So small they were, as they descended into the muddy banks of a tidal rivulet, that they disappeared, only to reappear later.

Sweeping my glasses over the acres of mudflats and along the shallow shoreline, I could also see godwits, willets and dunlin in small groups. Even several Long-billed curlews probing the muddy sand with their scythe-like bills, searching for unlucky worms and crustaceans.  All in all, this was a nice mix of birds.

White-crown sparrow strikes a pose

White-crown sparrow strikes a pose

Coots were scattered over the flats too, black and round, white bills, flat feet, plodding over the mud. Their shape seemed to suit their fate, a life of constant slow, tentative movement in shallow water or over sodden sand. Thus perhaps their blasé, relaxed demeanor — much more so than the excitable shorebirds. However, their way of life seems to suit them well; we hear of no massive Coot declines! Regardless of where you are, they are never in short supply.

Now and then Canada geese flew in noisy chevrons down the length of the park, honking and squawking, always big and powerful. I noticed an occasional Snowy egret along the shoreline, dainty and elegant, studying the water’s edge with the greatest interest, probing occasionally. Even running after its prey, if necessary.

We eventually returned to the car, and made for the far end of the park, a hundred yards south, to see what birds it held for us. John assured me it held many.

Male Brewer's blackbird with iridescent plumage

Male Brewer’s blackbird with iridescent plumage

Arriving there, I saw that it consisted of a promontory several hundred yards long that jutted out into the bay, containing mostly scrubby vegetation, but with a few trees and a small marsh to one side. Even from the car you could see blackbirds in great flocks– Red-wings – swirling everywhere, and typically noisy as they are when they congregate in great numbers.

Several other features made it even more notable: a striking, dark 40-foot observation tower that dominated the area, which had stairs you could climb to take in the whole of the harbor. It had a modernistic-Asian influence to its design, like a giant steel Samurai tower, and very striking. Climbing the stairs we did, and savored the view, pointing out San Francisco and the bridge, a massive tanker passing by, several small sailing ships dotting the bay, and even a tiny kayaker headed over to Alameda. I also realized that the landmass directly across from us, to our left, separated only by a narrow channel, was Alameda Point, the western-most part of the island.

Close by was the third part of the visual triumvirate: equally impressive, but in a sinister way. It was the Hanjin Shipping Terminal, with its giant dark crane dominating the sky in back of us.  I kept my eyes, most of the time, straight ahead, pointed west, out to the bay, but it was hard to ignore. The 15-story body of the crane, including the legs, made of cyclopean steel-girders, gave it a post-apocalyptic air. I imagined it as part of a scene from a future War of the Worlds, still to be written, with the outcome in doubt. However, today, it was certainly other-worldly, tall, dark and ugly, but quiet, and not terribly threatening. I tried to ignore it as much as possible.

Resting Red-wing

Resting Red-wing

We headed out over the scrubby parkland to see what birds it contained. As we went out, great numbers of Red-wings flew up in great flocks of magenta-accented males, all making a strident racket as they flew, and they finally settled into a small marsh to our right. There they perched on the high green stalks of cat-tails and John shot them to his heart’s content, at close range, getting a number of good photos.

As we walked further, Meadowlarks also flew up in small groups, their white tail feathers showing for a few minutes, and then ducked down into the scrubby growth again. I heard a raspy familiar song, and thought it was  similar to a Song sparrow, and it was – a Savannah. They were singing, but somewhat secretive about it, and not very close. As a result, we never had very good looks of these little sparrows. However, once you see that dash of yellow near the eyes, you know you have them. The season, the place, the song — the behavior — all said “Savannah!” A small bird but a memorable one, perhaps indeed for its scarcity. White-crowns occasionally jumped up to sing their distinctive song from a bush here and there as we walked the paths also. As we walked, A Black Phoebe here and there graced us with its cheery — if not overly inventive — song, and fluttered out again to trap an unwary insect.

Male House finch pauses for a moment

Male House finch pauses for a moment

We continued our walk to the end of the point, and from several spots on the trail we looked over the Middle Harbor, viewing again the great variety of egrets, ducks, shorebirds, cormorants – even a Kingfisher at one point –but now infinitesimal in size due to the great distance.

All in all, it was an impressive sight, this great encyclopedia of visual impressions, seen all at once and together. The blue bay waters, the green crescent of the park sweeping gracefully a mile or so to the north, the blue-gray skyline of the city, and the great bridge directly ahead, dominating the northern horizon. I remembered to pause and marvel again, birds or no birds.

We walked back to the car, in the parking lot to the rear of the great tower. We were headed out for a late breakfast, to relax, count our “bag” for the morning. To discuss birds, impressions, and future possibilities. John showed me some of his many photos, some very good. Counting later, it appeared we saw about 34 species that morning in several hours — some in large numbers.

Not bad for, as I put it, deepest and darkest Oakland. Not bad at all, in the midst of a great modern port. The cranes we saw were not the ones I usually prefer – I like the Sandhill kind, flying through the delta skies in great waves, calling out to one another. I love to see their gray antediluvian forms dancing in the marshes, or standing majestically in the fields and wetlands.

Searching, searching, searching

Searching, searching, searching

But despite urban landscapes and blighted skies, it appears, as it often does, that many birds are not as impressed as we are by their occasionally steely, massive and unesthetic surroundings. That is, if they have a little piece of nature, at least moderately pure, embedded somewhere within it. Witness Shoreline Park, in deepest Oakland.


Lake Temescal Bird Class Trip, Nov 3, 2012

One of many beautiful views of the lake we had!

A Green heron flew out of the willows to the left side of the photo!

Near the end of our walk, we spotted several birds fairly close to the path; we got a good look.

For our last class trip of the Fall 2012 semester, we went to a small local park in Oakland, Lake Temescal (bounded by 13 and 24). It is mostly a small lake surrounded by a small amount of oak and conifer woodland. What it lacks in diversity it makes up in natural beauty (see photos below). It was a beautiful fall day, the sun shone through the overhanging trees and marsh grass, and we made a leisurely circumnavigation of the lake looking for birds and any other wild creatures we might find (mostly turtles and squirrels). We had good luck with water birds, of course, including Great, Blue, Snowy, Black-crowned and Green herons and egrets. Always fun to see the Green herons, since they’re comparatively hard to find in the Bay Area. We saw a number of coots, pied-billed grebes and cormorants, of course, and several gulls (ring-bills). Ducks were lacking, except for mallards, but later in the season you can see Buffleheads, Ring-necks, Goldeneyes and several others. Both jays, of course, but no woodpeckers, which is surprising. Raptors were few, with only one Red-tail, and no vultures! Some of the usual fall-winter songbirds were present, such as the Ruby-crown kinglets, White-crown sparrows, Townsend’s warblers, juncos, titmice and chickadees, Black phoebes and Song sparrows. Heard what I thought was a Bewick’s wren also.Too late for the swallows that usually dart and swoop around the edges of the lake; they’re far to the south by now. Little over 20 species. An invigorating, crisp fall day, with luxuriant shrubs, trees and grasses all around the lake. Brilliant sunshine all the while, everyone had a great time hiking up and down the trails surrounding the lake. The first Winter Bay Area Birds class trip will be on Nov. 28th, with Crab Cove in Alameda. Still time to sign up, the semester goes to Feb. 6th of next year.