A little more than a week after my review of his book appeared in this space, I had the good fortune to spend a day birding with Douglas Tallamy. His book, "Bringing Nature Home," provides a wonderful template for ways each of us can help those birds whose populations are declining.
For the first time in a number of years, my husband and I were camped near San Diego for more than a brief visit. We arrived Thanksgiving weekend and stayed through the end of December. Doug, who came to San Diego for the annual convention of the Entomological Society of America, chairs the University of Delaware's Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology.
But Doug's interests aren't confined to his specialty -- he is also an avid birder.
On a vague hunch, (he had no idea we were in Southern California), he e-mailed a couple of days before leaving the East to ask if we might be in town. It was a happy coincidence that offered us an entire day exploring my old haunt, Mission Trails Regional Park, as well as nearby Santee Lakes Campground, where my mate and I were staying.
In a message before he arrived, Doug expressed a strong interest in seeing, and perhaps photographing, a California gnatcatcher. When I picked him up, he had no binoculars, but was carrying a camera with a very long lens. He birds, as it turns out, through this lens. That way he gets a great look at his subject, and he may also get a good photo of it. I cautioned him that our target bird was shy and we might not even see it. But the little gray bird surprised us.
Much needed heavy rains prior to our day in the field brought snow to the mountains. That meant cold nights and chilly mornings, which proved to be a boon in our search. We didn't arrive at Mission Trails until after nine, by which time, on a warmer morning, many species would have tucked into dense foliage for the day. But snowy peaks meant that brisk temperatures were still with us when I pulled into the parking lot. Doug and I weren't on the trail for five minutes when up popped the gnatcatcher. He sat briefly under the warming sun, perched on a thin branch at the top of a shrub not 10 feet away from us. Doug trained his lens immediately on the bird, but it was for naught. Another thin branch was in front of the gnatcatcher, so the camera focused on it, rather than the bird. Within seconds, he vanished into the dense leaves from which he had come.
California gnatcatchers are on the endangered list, and their decline results from habitat loss.
But this bird proves an important point in "Bringing Nature Home," which is that we can share our personal space with wildlife if we just incorporate native plantings. In a number of places, these pretty little birds are surviving in or near developments where even small tracts of coastal sage scrub habitat upon which they depend were left intact. There is no doubt they would do equally well wherever this pleasantly scented native habitat replaced exotic landscapes.
We spent the rest of the morning birding at the park, but there were no more gnatcatcher sightings.
Because of his keen interest in photography, I asked Doug if he'd like to try for shots of wood ducks. With an affirmative answer, we headed for Santee Lakes after lunch. A breeding program at the lakes has resulted in a significant, and relatively tame, population of these most beautiful ducks. While he snapped away at the edge of one of the ponds, a woodpecker caught my eye. I thought it a Lewis', but wasn't sure so didn't mention it.
A few days later, I confirmed the woodpecker and e-mailed him to express regret that I hadn't pointed it out. He tried to console me by saying that he'd snagged four birds for the trip and was satisfied. I just didn't have the heart to tell him I'd also found a Townsend's warbler.
Mea culpa, Doug. I'll do better next time.
Kay Charter is executive director of Saving Birds Thru Habitat, an organization that teaches people how to help migrating birds whose populations are declining