I can’t remember the last time I went swimming in a natural river. But when Andrea and I discovered the beach just downhill from our campground, overflowing with water and bordered by picturesque cliffs, we simply couldn’t resist.
At one time, I pictured the Central Valley as a single flat rift through the center of California. But in reality, the region is split every which way with cities and rivers, and the edges branch off into many smaller valleys. One of which, the Capay Valley, has been our home for the past three days as we surveyed the small town of Rumsey. The landscapes of the Central Valley have been just as diverse as our experiences here, and I have endeavored to share that diversity of place and people in equal measure with the science. But Capay has been a place where the experience was far more interesting than the birds.
Perhaps our greatest hurdle this summer (certainly the greatest source of personal anxiety) has been simply acquiring access to our survey points. UC Berkeley isn’t always the best name to tote around in the Central Valley. One bad run in with an extreme environmentalist, and the local ranchers become understandably hesitant to grant researchers free roam of their property. And so we were most disheartened to realize that most of our desired survey points in Rumsey were on private land.
Still, we put on our official faces, drove down the long private driveway, and knocked on a random door, unannounced, in the middle of the day. Hoping for the best from whoever answered.
Our reception could not have been warmer. By some stroke of serendipity, the woman who came to the door was a graduate of UC Berkeley herself. She excitedly beckoned us inside, where explained the project while petting her two dogs. And not only did she consent wholeheartedly to us wandering her property in the early dawn hours, she even gave us a personal tour of her beautiful grounds and the best places to look for birds along the river.
Our second request for property access was a surprise – we ran out of road, and still had one more point to survey. In the middle of a woman’s backyard. Thanks a bunch, Google Earth. Fortunately, we made another instant friend. Just a minute or two into speaking with the property owner, and we had a standing invitation to come swim in her pool whenever we liked. She then took us around her yard, let us play with even more dogs, handed me a “souvenir” nest that fell out of her tree, and gleefully showed off a nest box full of baby birds.
This was the best place ever.
The town itself wraps around Cache Creek, which is in fact a vigorously flowing river that hosts a thriving rafting industry. Not a remote paradise by any means. But our dawn counts of swallows over the water have been some of the most serene and enjoyable moments of my summer.
We once again used our free afternoons to get a taste of the local countryside – this time, very literally. I don’t think we had a moment without at least one bag of freshly picked apricots, figs, and nectarines from roadside fruit stands. We even stopped by a local olive farm to enjoy a tasting of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and candied nuts.
At the suggestion of our new friends in town, we braved a rather rough dirt road to reach the peak of the hills encasing the valley. At one point Andrea had to get out a build me a little rock bridge across one of the chasms in the road. But the view at the end was well worth it.
And of course, there have been some nice birds. Piles of roosting Turkey Vultures every morning.
Nesting Great-blue Herons in the pines along our survey route, and nesting Osprey at Clear Lake farther up in the hills.
And everywhere we went, people were eager to talk to us about the birds they’d seen. A woman with a swallow nest in her yard. Our camp host and his hummingbird feeders. One of the residents even told us about the local Phainopeplas – not exactly a common bird that rolls off the tongue.
It was this last conversation in particular that made Andrea ask me: How do all these normal, non-biologist people know so much about birds?
And that, to me, is what makes birds so special. It’s certainly why I became an ornithologist. By and large, birds are our most vibrant and accessible window into the natural world. They catch our eye not just on our remote wilderness hikes, where all flora and fauna gain a little magic. They’re with us every day.
Not everyone can find an elk browsing in their backyard. But there are birds on every street.
And it is this accessibility that allows birds to capture the imaginations of a hundred different people in a hundred different ways.
Then all it takes is a simple flip of a field guide. And once someone can put a name to something, it gains more value than a hundred lectures on conservation ever could.