Birders of a Feather

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls March 15, 2016 13:34

John and Sandra Turner on the hunt

John and Sandra Turner are on the hunt.

They head into the field in the early morning, find a good spot, get their equipment ready and pick out their targets.

Then, when conditions are just right and they have their quarry locked in their sights … they watch.

The Turners, whose home overlooks Don Pedro Reservoir’s eastern shore, hunt not with guns but with their eyes, binoculars, spotting scopes and even cell phones. They are birders, the recreational enthusiasts formerly known as birdwatchers.

On this day, the couple drives a bird-friendly, 40-mile loop starting at Dawson Lake just outside La Grange. They follow the hilly, meandering course of Rock River Road from the Keystone area of Tuolumne County into Stanislaus County, where Rock River merges with Willms Road a few miles southwest of the Turners’ home.

All the while, John and Sandra, both 75, keep up a lively husband-and-wife, birder-to-birder banter – which they admit can occasionally become heated – as they identify birds and confirm or challenge each other’s sightings.

They spot a grand total of 74 species along the way, picking out a bald eagle (equally adept at fishing, thieving and scavenging) perched in an oak tree, a pair of red-tailed hawks (the female is always bigger) circling over the oak savanna, double-crested cormorants (seabirds which occasionally venture inland) making splashy takeoffs, and a spritely bufflehead (the smallest American duck) swimming near two large, snow-white mute swans.

During their trek, the Turners also:

  • Draw avian attention to certain distinctive bird calls, with John imitating a few and playing others from an app on his cell phone to go along with what might pass for bird selfies
  • Use their powerful scope to gain striking views of birds hundreds of yards away
  • Explain how to tell an American crow from a common raven (in flight, the crow’s tail is rounded and the raven’s is v-shaped)
  • Point out that roadrunners live in Tuolumne County.
Spotted towhee in Sonora

Spotted towhee in Sonora

All in all, a fine day’s birding.

The Turners are typical of birders throughout the U.S. in that they are of a certain age and have fallen in love with birds. They are part of what the website identifies as “the fastest growing outdoor recreational activity in the U.S.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a 2011 survey, noted that birding is pursued by a staggering 47 million Americans, and that 30 percent are 55 or older. The study found birders are “generally middle-aged,” fairly well-off, well-educated and roughly gender-balanced.

In other words, rather mainstream, compared to what online magazine laments as an oft-used cinematic stereotype of birders as “elderly, dim-witted nutjobs.”

If there is a birding niche today, it might be those who travel extensively to indulge in the pastime. The Turners once counted themselves among such birders, traveling to Costa Rica and Peru, but now enjoy outings closer to home.

The reasons birders do what they do are numerous.

“It gets you out in nature instead of at your computer,” says Sandra Turner. “It’s very social.”

“It’s cheap entertainment,” her husband offers, “the thrill of the hunt.”

Calaveras County birder Barry Boulton, 74, says, “It’s great to be outside, having a purpose.”

The National Audubon Society views birding as a “citizen science” critical to the understanding, protection and preservation of all things bird.

Creation of the website in 2002 by the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology makes it possible for even the most casual birder to quickly and easily report sightings. Enthusiasts have been doing it ever since, with scientists using that data to learn about how birds are doing and how to protect them and the environment.

“Ebird is such a fantastic thing,” John Turner says. “It’s a worldwide database.”

A western bluebird at Tuttletown Recreation Area

A western bluebird at Tuttletown Recreation Area

Sonora birder Steven Umland, 61, concurs, saying, “There are so many out there collecting so much information – it’s a huge undertaking.”

The Turners and Umland, along with about 400 others, are members of the Central Sierra Audubon Society (CSAS), which drives birding in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties (Amador County is affiliated with Sacramento Audubon,

CSAS is one of 47 California chapters of National Audubon and offers a wealth of birding information online (, including a comprehensive list of the roughly 260 bird species that call the foothill counties home.

That number accounts for more than a third of the species found in environmentally diverse California, which claims roughly 700 of the nearly 900 species found in the U.S.

There are 10,000 species worldwide, according to National Audubon.

Much of CSAS’s information is gleaned from the annual Audubon-sponsored Christmas Bird Count and Great Backyard Bird Count, plus “feeder watches,” which involve nothing more than placing a bird feeder in one’s yard and observing birds as they come calling. The Turners say they have seen about 125 species from their own backyard.

Christmas counts, which began in 1900, are held December and January of each year. Backyard counts, which started in 1998, take place each February. The counts are good ways to get acquainted with birding, say both Turner and Umland, as new birders are teamed up with experienced observers.

Getting started is easy and can be economical or expensive, low-tech or high-tech. The basics include binoculars ($45 to thousands), a birding scope ($400 to thousands) and a bird book (as little as $10) or a birding app downloaded from cyberspace to your smart phone.

An inexpensive book favored by area birders is Sierra Birds: A Hiker’s Guide, by John Muir Laws. Apps recommended by are Merlin, Audubon, National Geographic, iBird, Sibley, BirdsEye and Peterson.

The foothills offer myriad birding hotspots (see “Regional Birding Hotspots”) including, oddly enough, water and sewage treatment plants. It isn’t that birds like sewage, it’s simply that they like water. lists foremost among its hotspots treatment plants in Groveland and Ione.

“Those places always have water,” explains Amador birder Don Marsh, 55, of Sutter Creek.

Perhaps the greatest fun in birding comes from unexpected sightings.

Cedar waxwing in Sonora

Cedar waxwing in Sonora

Umland experienced the foothills’ granddaddy of them all when he spotted a smew, a small Asian duck, swimming with some of its hooded merganser cousins in the Willow Springs subdivision lake in Soulsbyville in 2007. It was the first sighting of a smew in Tuolumne County and only the third in California. Theory holds that the wayward duck was blown some 4,000 miles off its range by a storm.

Word spread and birders came from all over the U.S. to get a look at the little visitor. “I couldn’t believe it,” Umland says of the celebrated sighting. “It was a very big thing in the birding community. I felt great that I was able to help people come see a bird they may never see in the U.S.”

The smew was spotted again the next year by Pamela Blair, 65, the leader of Central Sierra Audubon’s educational programs, on a private pond not far from Willow Springs.

Central Sierra Audubon is part of a movement to interest younger people in birding, spearheaded by the American Birding Association. Representing CSAS, Blair visits second- through fifth-grade classrooms in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties each year to teach the wonders of birds and birding, plus “a respect for our natural resources.”

Umland says younger birders are always encouraged to take part in the Christmas counts.

John Turner says less-seasoned enthusiasts are more prevalent at birding festivals than at regular club functions. One such festival, the Mono Basin Bird Chautauqua, takes place in Lee Vining each June (info is online at

One young birder enjoying the hobby is 12-year-old Jose Amiral, a sixth-grader at Chinese Camp School adjacent to the bird-rich Red Hills.

Amiral has benefitted from Audubon efforts as well as from Chinese Camp teacher Sheri Betz’s curriculum, which emphasizes, she says, “a love for the land and a real stewardship attitude.”

Jose’s favorite is the Bullock’s oriole, and he proudly participated in the sighting of a yellow-breasted chat, an exotic visitor usually seen in Texas. Through persistence, Amiral was able to record the chat’s song.

He wants to carry his birding well into the future, and his career plan undoubtedly will warm the hearts of senior birders everywhere: “I’m going to be a naturalist.”

Want to Join the Hunt?

The Central Sierra Audubon Society meets at 7pm the third Wednesday of each month (except July, August and December) in the Tuolumne County Library’s conference room, 480 Greenley Rd., Sonora. Annual dues are $15.

To participate in the annual Christmas or Backyard counts or to learn more, contact these members:

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls March 15, 2016 13:34
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