Birding is booming in Sonoma County
The first thing you might notice on an after-dark birding expedition with Ruthie Rudesill is that she uses “owl” as a verb — as in “the last time we went owling, we heard a pygmy in that same tree.”
On this night, a Saturday about an hour after sunset, at a crossroads several miles northwest of the town of Bodega, she’s leading a field trip with fellow Redwood Region Ornithological Society members Malcolm Blanchard, Peter Leveque and his wife Olivia. They’re veterans in the tight-knit birding community in Sonoma County, a region bustling with migratory and resident bird activity from Bodega Bay to inland refuges like Laguna de Santa Rosa and Shollenberger Park and on to San Pablo Bay wetlands. It’s a devoted following where news of rare bird sightings — a lone emperor goose stopping over at Bodega Head, a pair of Harris’s sparrows in Freestone — lights up cellphones and sparks lively chatter on Facebook pages and Yahoo groups.
Life lists, personal catalogs of every bird sighting of a person’s lifetime, were once preserved in tattered logbooks and field notebooks back when Leveque was a founding member of RROS in 1962. Now they’re on full display, posted minute by minute and day by day on the popular eBird website, where Rudesill often sits atop the leader board as a “top eBirder” in this area, a title measured in the number of species spotted.
Listen to the Pacific Wren
(Teresa & Miles Tuffli, imbirdingrightnow.com )
But owls are special to her. Rudesill’s “spark bird,” the winged epiphany that transformed her hobby into a lifelong passion, was a great gray owl she saw at Prairie Creek while studying at Humboldt State University.
“When I saw that owl and how magnificent it was, that’s when I went from birdwatcher to birder.”
On this night, at the heavily wooded intersection of Salmon Creek Road and Fitzpatrick Lane, stars are shining bright, along with a half moon. The murmur of nearby Salmon Creek is almost drowned out by the sound of campers setting up in the distance, the hum of generators and dogs barking over the ridge. It’s dark enough to still trip in mud puddles where the pavement turns to dirt road. Short of infrared binoculars, it’s not exactly prime birdwatching time. But Rudesill isn’t here to see birds. She’s here to listen.
“I have terrible eyes, but great ears,” Rudesill says. Every sound in the forest is quickly deciphered, another clue to consider. A high-pitched pygmy owl is the first to introduce itself, with a series of sharp hoots. Soon after, another pygmy chimes in. Rudesill strikes up a dialogue, making calls in short whistles that sometimes double as a long high note and short low note.
When an owl responds in darkness, at first you strain your eyes to locate it in a tree, but eventually your ears take over. About a half-hour later, a saw-whet owl joins the call and response, adding more of a continuous pattern, almost a ghostly “whoo-ooo” call, in contrast to the sharp punctuations of the pygmy. Then the unexpected highlight of the night arrives in a sharp, far away cry.
Hear the Black-headed Grosbeak
(Teresa & Miles Tuffli, imbirdingrightnow.com )
“Oh my god, that was a spotted owl,” Rudesill says, her voice shaking. She takes a deep breath. “That was their position call.” Later, she adds, “We know that there’s a pair around here, but hearing it is just awesome, because they’re so endangered and they’re so special. To know they’re still here is very exciting.”
It’s all part of the thrill of the chase that attracts an estimated 16 million dedicated birders across the country to the pastime, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency estimates there are 45 million total “birdwatchers” in the country, when it includes both “at-home” birdwatchers and “away-from-home” birders who travel at least a mile from home to see birds. It’s the difference Rudesill, who lives in Kenwood and works as a customer service rep for Gap, sees between a “birdwatcher” and a “birder.”
Pandemic spurs interest
Susan Kirks, president of the Madrone Audubon Society, the Sonoma County chapter of the national association, has seen more interest in birdwatching during the pandemic. Typically around 25 to 30 new members sign up each year. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, they’ve had nearly twice that number join their base of more than 800 local members.
“We’re so lucky to have experienced birders in Sonoma County who are open to sharing information and helping others learn,” Kirks says. “It’s through birds that we can learn a lot about the health of our environment and the effects of climate change, by being more aware and learning to identify birds and see what species are in certain areas and what species seem to be missing.”