The blissful vistas at Knight’s Ferry seemed a distant memory as I stood on the shoulder of Corral Hollow Road, the roar of traffic and wind blurring all but the most boisterous of meadowlark songs as they drifted in from the brown, barren grasslands surrounding me.
When the historic surveyors visited the mouth of Corral Hollow canyon in 1911, they described a landscape nearly inundated by the fervent flow of the river. The idea seems laughable now. Only a meager creek trickles through the massive dry wash, lined sporadically by native cottonwoods, exotic pepper trees, and many, many cows.
The cows were friendly. So was the highway patrol man who stopped by to make sure I wasn’t stranded on the side of the road. Thank you, officer, I’m fine. Just looking for birds where no one in their right mind should be.
Somewhere out in the grass were Savannah Sparrows and Horned Larks. Occasionally I heard their airy trills in lulls between cars. The impressive level of commuting traffic on that little road through the hills was unexpected, and made for less than ideal birding conditions. But there weren’t that many birds to see, anyway. The only species thriving was the ravens, whose nests filled the ledges along the bluffs carved out by the once mighty river.
Meanwhile, Logic (my field technician) returned from her survey site north of Tracy with tales of lush riverbanks, hordes of crane flies, and spring-loaded thistle thickets. I paid her a visit one morning after completing my own surveys, officially to help with plant identification, but also to enjoy the impressive assemblage of birds along the Old River. Great-tailed Grackles were a surprise – farther north than I would have expected to see them. And Yellow-billed Magpies were farther south than expected.
But my visit to the river was short-lived – I had my own noisy, birdless desert to survey. Typically I was able to record every bird in the area within the first minute of each point count, leaving me with six idle minutes to contemplate the meaning of life. During this time, I found myself evaluating my surroundings as a metaphor for life. Staring at my feet, I saw nothing but slippery gravel, broken glass, and other road debris. Looking up, the view was a bit better, but still obscured by power lines and barbed wire fences. But if I took an even wider view, just as the sun first lit up the soft hills in every shade of green, orange, and purple, I could believe that this place was secretly beautiful.
At least, that was the optimistic view I had chosen to ascribe to before returning to Berkeley for a two-day break, and promptly coming down with my first stomach flu in at least ten years. But at least it didn’t happen while I was in the field.