It is April 24 and I am driving my pickup on Cunningham Road, a few miles east of Planada on a breezy Sunday with clouds drifting over the Sierra Nevada mountains, clear skies overhead and fields and hills still green from spring rains.
A UC Merced freshman, Wendy Zhu, and the president of the Yosemite Area Audubon society, Lowell Young, 81, are my passengers. We are on a raptor run, which means we’re looking for raptors and some birds – loggerhead shrikes and tricolored blackbirds – that are not raptors but are declining in population.
Lowell is excited about the prospect of encountering tricolored blackbirds, which are currently under consideration for becoming listed as endangered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
He tells the story of tricolored blackbirds – their habit of nesting in wheat fields in colonies as large as 50,000, their decimation when farmers must harvest their crops – and then mentions that tricoloreds recently have adapted to wild thistle for nesting because the thistle barbs repel predators. We will see a lot of thistle, Lowell tells us, great expanses of it, and in that thistle we will see tricolored blackbirds, which we will be able to identify by their brilliant red wings fringed white at the tips.
We spot a loggerhead shrike perched on a fence post. Loggerhead shrikes are songbirds, but they are not the sweet creatures one imagines when thinking of songbirds. They also are called butcherbirds because they impale their prey (frogs, lizards, the occasional shrew) on barbed wire and leave them there, like sides of beef in a locker, to snack on at leisure.
Wendy notices something moving through the tall grass in the field next to us. “Is that a deer?” she asks.
“No, that’s a coyote,” Lowell says, pronouncing it without the “e.”
Wendy is from Alameda, and though she has traveled to Costa Rica and hiked the Sierra Nevada, she has never seen a coyote before. She takes a picture. She will see two more before the trip is over.
As we drive down Cunningham Road at 25 miles per hour, Lowell and Wendy use their binoculars to peer out the windows. They are looking for nests and raptors in trees and windmills, and they scan the sky, too, and every once in a while Lowell says, “Stop, please,” and I pull over and we all get out with our binoculars and study the branches of a distant eucalyptus or Valley oak.
Lowell has eyes for this kind of thing. He’s been birding for more than a decade, and he tells us that after a while you just know how to identify a bird – its tail, its way of flying – and you know where to find them. Some of these trees have had nests for three or four years, and he remembers where they are.
When we spot something, Lowell sets up his scope on a tripod, and within minutes we are able to see the downy heads of horned owlets bobbing in a nest 70 feet above the ground or a red-tailed hawk perched in a tree 500 yards away.
Lowell is looking at the sky when he says, “Pull over, please,” and when I pull over he points at a bird soaring in the distance. He tells us it’s a golden eagle – and how he knows it. We follow it for a time as it’s harassed by a falcon before the eagle disappears.
At one point Lowell tells us about his recent cataract surgery and Wendy mumbles from the backseat that his eyes are better than ours, which seems to be true. But Lowell also tells us that he is colorblind, and that it is his colorblindness that got him into birding in the first place.
“All of my life, I couldn’t do any of the things I wanted to do because I was colorblind, and so I decided finally to do something that required color recognition and to do it without being able to see color, and birding was suited to that.”
So, the man who as a boy had wanted so badly to be a pilot that he filled his room with model planes, became a bird expert who could not see the teal colors of a mallard or the auburn tinge of a hawk’s tail but who could see the stippled patterns of a raptor’s chest and the dipping motion of a turkey vulture in flight, and over time he became an expert at identifying birds.
As we cruise along the back roads, Lowell thinks he sees a rare falcon.
“Gee jumpin’ Jehoshaphat,” he says. “Pull over!” We study the bird, which is perched on a fence post about 50 feet away, but it turns out that it is only another red-tailed hawk.
“What did you say back there?” Wendy asks.
Lowell is confused. “What did I say? It’s only a red-tail,” he answers.
“No,” she says. “I mean in the truck. Geeso-something?”
“Oh,” he says. “You mean Jehoshaphat?”
“Yeah,” Wendy says. “But that’s not the whole thing. Jumpin’ something?” She has been busy in the back seat taking notes for a writing project, trying to record everything while still looking for birds.
“Gee jumpin’ Jehoshaphat,” Lowell says.
“How do you spell that?” Wendy asks.
“I don’t know,” Lowell says. He takes his phone out of his pocket. “Let’s look it up.”
Later, we are deep into the hills on a remote road when we come across a spring-fed pond. Lowell gets out the scope because we have finished our raptor run and we have time for some frivolous bird-watching. He spots a shorebird.
“That’s a greater yellowlegs,” he says, and I believe him even though I cannot see the bird’s legs because by now we have seen more than 45 birds and he has been able to describe the distinguishing features of each species.
Then I take another look and see that the bird’s legs are indeed yellow.
We get back in the truck and within a few minutes we are passing by a sea of thistle.
Lowell has been told that just yesterday some birders came by and there were so many tricolored blackbirds that the sound was deafening. But those birders had passed by earlier in the day, and though we can hear the tricolored blackbirds, it is late afternoon and they are already settling in, so they are not very loud.
Still, we know they are there. We have seen hundreds throughout the day, swooping together over thistle, their red wings vibrant in the sun.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.