Monday, June 16, 2008

This Is The West



One year. That may not seem like a very long time to most people, but my life has changed so drastically in the last year that it seems to stretch way back into the distant past. I haven't always lived in California; in fact, I am a relative newcomer to western birding. However, the previous fourteen years of my life suddenly seem slightly blurred as I look back upon them.

Exactly one year ago, June 16th 2007, I was standing on a roadside near Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was late in the day, about the same time of day as it is right now as I write this. The sun was slowly sinking beneath the horizon, bathing the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher perched on the wire above my head in golden light. I spent several minutes photographing it. I remember cars rushing past a few feet away, throwing walls of wind into my face. Where were they going? Undoubtedly most were locals rushing home after work. Maybe there was another family moving cross-country going by even as I was standing there...


Since I'm a birder, the drive from Michigan to California was undoubtedly more interesting to me than it was to the rest of the family. I noticed subtle changes in the bird life as we traversed the country, east to west. As we rolled out our long driveway in Beverly Hills, Michigan, for the last time, I could hear Black-capped Chickadees, Blue Jays, and Northern Cardinals through the open windows. On the second day, I saw the first Northern (a misnomer - the mockingbird is generally a southern bird) Mockingbird in southern Ohio. Indiana and Illinois dragged by; endless miles of corn fields seemed to stretch to the horizon in all directions. I did, however, see Blue Grosbeaks and Dickcissels. I picked off my life Scissor-tailed Flycatcher as we sped down an interstate in southern Missouri at seventy miles per hour. Oklahoma was the next state. In retrospect, Oklahoma was the best part of the trip. In under twenty-four hours, I observed sixty species of birds. And not just the plain old eastern birds; novelties such as Bell's Vireo, Bewick's Wren, Mississippi Kite, and Western Kingbird.

Birding around the parking lots of hotels is generally dull. Our hotel somewhere in the heart of New Mexico was an exception to this rule. Located on the edge of a virtual ghost town and surrounded by desert grassland, the hotel was a great spot for birding. Noisy groups of Western Kingbirds called and squabbled among themselves constantly. A thrasher - Bendire's Thrasher! - skulked in a line of bushes around the edges of the parking lot. Eurasian Collared-Doves, Swainson's Hawks, Say's Phoebes, Cassin's Sparrows, and Western Meadowlarks all showed up right around the hotel parking lot. That's what I call high-quality hotel birding!



Arizona proved hot and birdless; California turned out to be much the same. On our last day of driving, we passed through Riverside and Corona. The smog was so thick that we could hardly read the road signs! This made me feel sick inside... we're moving here? Oddly, I have never since seen smog nearly that thick. Finally, we reached Orange County. I was practically bouncing out of my seat by now. Driving down Chapman Avenue... turning right into our new neighborhood... and finally wheeled around a corner onto our street. Thus started a new chapter of my life. I birded nonstop the next several days, finding all kinds of amazing birds: California Towhee! Wrentit! Pacific-slope Flycatcher! California Gnatcatcher! Nuttall's Woodpecker! Oak Titmouse!

I find it strange how my attitude has changed. A year ago, I was excited and nervous about moving, but I was looking forward to the new experience. Now, I sorely miss Michigan and the east. Sometimes I catch myself wishing I could go back forever... but now I know that if I did that, it wouldn't be too long until I started missing California and all the once exotic, but now familiar, birds.

6 comments:

Birdnerdguy said...

Nice homage to Kenn Kaufman and to western birding. By the way, I don't think Northern Mockingbird is misnomer is it? They're found much further north than all of the other mockingbirds.

Neil Gilbert said...

Point taken. I was looking at its distribution in North America - about the farthest north it gets is OH, PA, etc. The map in Sibley is quite inaccurate - no way is it a year-round resident of northern MI and ON!

Brendan F. said...

Great writing Neil, keep it up!

Squid said...

Hey Neil,

Your writing is amazing, much better than anything I could do. I see you added my blog to your links page. Thanks!

BTW, what Sibley's are you looking in?? I just looked at mine and it seemed pretty accurate...breeding up to the southernmost part of MI and ON and rare throughout the rest of MI and southern ON, just barely reaching up into my area. Some of the other maps are pretty inaccurate though in my guides...GWWA and YTVI breeding around the Sault??? Good luck :P.

Neil Gilbert said...

Thanks! Well, in my Sibley, it shows NOMO as being common into northern Michigan (it does show up annually in northern Michigan, but certainly is not a common breeder), through Ontario and southern Quebec. I have a stone-age Sibley (got it right after it came out), so the maps may have changed...

Allen Chartier said...

Nice to know you miss Michigan! I'll try harder to tease you more about the stuff I'm seeing here. Banded 14 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds today, and am going up to see Kirtland's Warblers tomorrow :-)