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Birding is booming in Sonoma County

Spring birding events

Whether you’re new to birdwatching or looking for like-minded birders, check out these organized birdwatching walks set for April and May. While state and county COVID-19 restrictions continue, the number of participants will be limited for each hike. Reserve a spot ahead of time.

Madrone Audubon Society

April 8: Sonoma Valley Regional Park

April 22: Bodega Bay, Campbell’s Cove

May 13: Helen Putnam Regional Park, Petaluma

May 27: Coastal Prairie Trail, Bodega Bay

Each is outing is free and limited to seven birders, due to COVID-19 restrictions. For more details, go to www.madroneaudubon.org. To reserve a space, contact Janet Bosshard, 707-526-5883

Redwood Region Ornithological Society

April 10: Pine Flat Road

Each outing is free and limited to 12 birders. For more details go to rros.org. To reserve a space, contact Malcolm Blanchard at 707-480-2210. For younger birders, check out the Y.A.M.S. (The Young Ancient Murrelets) program, which was started by RROS birding expert Lisa Hug for birders ages 10 to 18. Read more about the program at: rros.org/yams

Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation

May 15: Beginners bird walk

8:30 - 10:30 a.m. to noon. Miles and Teresa Tuffli lead a beginners birding walk along the Laguna de Santa Rosa trail. Free, but preregistration is required. Go to lagunafoundation.org and click on outings and events.

LandPaths

March 31: Bird Rehabilitation with Bird Rescue Center

Learn how to help care for wild birds from home by properly maintaining bird feeders and knowing what to do when encountering a bird in distress. Free bilingual virtual event via Zoom from 6-7:30 p.m. landpaths.org

Pepperwood Preserve

April 17-18: Springtime Birding Field Exploration

8 a.m. to 11 a.m. $35 per person. Ages 13 and up. pepperwoodpreserve.org

I’m Birding Right Now

Miles and Teresa Tuffli lead birding adventures throughout Sonoma County. Check out their blog at imbirdingrightnow.com and email them at imbirdingrightnow@gmail.com for more information.

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.”

Forest sounds

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.”

Spring birding events

Whether you’re new to birdwatching or looking for like-minded birders, check out these organized birdwatching walks set for April and May. While state and county COVID-19 restrictions continue, the number of participants will be limited for each hike. Reserve a spot ahead of time.

Madrone Audubon Society

April 8: Sonoma Valley Regional Park

April 22: Bodega Bay, Campbell’s Cove

May 13: Helen Putnam Regional Park, Petaluma

May 27: Coastal Prairie Trail, Bodega Bay

Each is outing is free and limited to seven birders, due to COVID-19 restrictions. For more details, go to www.madroneaudubon.org. To reserve a space, contact Janet Bosshard, 707-526-5883

Redwood Region Ornithological Society

April 10: Pine Flat Road

Each outing is free and limited to 12 birders. For more details go to rros.org. To reserve a space, contact Malcolm Blanchard at 707-480-2210. For younger birders, check out the Y.A.M.S. (The Young Ancient Murrelets) program, which was started by RROS birding expert Lisa Hug for birders ages 10 to 18. Read more about the program at: rros.org/yams

Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation

May 15: Beginners bird walk

8:30 - 10:30 a.m. to noon. Miles and Teresa Tuffli lead a beginners birding walk along the Laguna de Santa Rosa trail. Free, but preregistration is required. Go to lagunafoundation.org and click on outings and events.

LandPaths

March 31: Bird Rehabilitation with Bird Rescue Center

Learn how to help care for wild birds from home by properly maintaining bird feeders and knowing what to do when encountering a bird in distress. Free bilingual virtual event via Zoom from 6-7:30 p.m. landpaths.org

Pepperwood Preserve

April 17-18: Springtime Birding Field Exploration

8 a.m. to 11 a.m. $35 per person. Ages 13 and up. pepperwoodpreserve.org

I’m Birding Right Now

Miles and Teresa Tuffli lead birding adventures throughout Sonoma County. Check out their blog at imbirdingrightnow.com and email them at imbirdingrightnow@gmail.com for more information.

During a recent outing with avid birders Teresa and Miles Tuffli along Washoe Creek in Cotati, they point out dozens of birds hopping along tree branches and alighting in nearby cow pastures. There are fidgety “over-caffeinated” ruby-crowned kinglets, chattering goldfinches and western meadowlark that often announce themselves in song before they’re seen. A red-shouldered hawk stares back from its perch on a low branch before taking flight.

Listen to the Lark Sparrow

(Teresa & Miles Tuffli, imbirdingrightnow.com )

“Once you decide that you want to try to be a little more aware of the birds around you in your day-to-day life, it’s amazing how they magically start appearing,” Miles says.

“And once you turn it on, it’s hard to turn it off,” Teresa adds.

Sometimes that can make conversation difficult. “We call it getting DBDB’d or getting ‘distracted by da birds,’” Miles says. It’s what happens when you’re trying to talk with someone while constantly looking and listening to birds around you. Rudesill suffers from the same chronic problem.

At one point along the trail, a passing group of hikers strikes up a conversation, asking when spring nesting might begin.

Hear the Lesser Goldfinch

(Teresa & Miles Tuffli, imbirdingrightnow.com )

“Birds are new to me,” says hiker Margaret Garvin. She’s lived for more than 20 years in the same house off Mark West Springs Road, but in the past year she’s had a pandemic awakening of sorts, discovering the doves, juncos, owls, woodpeckers and various finches that have always lived in her backyard. “This forced slowing down has caused me to focus on important things that were all around me all along, that I’d never thought of looking for or looking at.”

It seems everyone has a birding story. For the Tufflis, it started four years ago when they embarked on a free LandPaths raptor hike near Pomo Canyon and were immediately hooked. Living in Guerneville, near birding hot spots along the Russian River and around Bodega Bay, they started the “I’m Birding Right Now” blog to chronicle their journey in stories, photos and audio field recordings.

There’s the time they were kayaking and discovered that a bald eagle, stoic on a branch less than 20 yards away, had been watching them for 10 minutes before they noticed it. Or the time they glimpsed a rare least bittern peeking through the reeds near the Ellis Creek water treatment ponds. Their annual top photo and top bird recording lists posted every winter are a treasure trove for beginners looking to get into birdwatching. If Rudesill, Blanchard and Leveque are community elders, the Tufflis are the younger guard, eager to learn more in their mid 30s and early 40s.

Field trips

For beginners, the Tufflis recommend going on any of the field trips offered by groups like RROS, Madrone Audubon Society, LandPaths or Sonoma Land Trust. It was a Madrone walk with veteran guide Gordon Beebe that opened their ears to bird calls and song.

“I would say at least 80% of the birds I’ve encountered in my life, I’ve heard but never seen,” says Beebe, 64, whose began developing his ear for birds while growing up in Fullerton in the 1970s. While listening to his older brothers’ albums by bands like America, he also wore out the grooves on nature LPs of recorded bird calls. Even though his hearing is not what it used to be, Beebe still loves leading bird walks and showing beginners how to look through a scope and see a bird close up and magnified for the first time.

“To see their face light up, that brings me so much joy, and my hope is that as they continue on and keep birding, they will develop an appreciation for nature and caring for it,” Beebe says.

Now, in the onrush of spring, it’s a great time of year to watch both resident and migratory birds. Many carry nest-building materials. They sing songs to each other in mating rituals before pairing up. Nearly every morning, a dawn chorus signals sunrise. Migratory birds, like cliff swallows, return from South America to build nests again under Petaluma and Monte Rio bridges. Swainson’s thrushes, Pacific-slope flycatchers and Rufous and Allen’s hummingbirds return from southern migrations.

Listen to the Wilson’s Warbler

(Teresa & Miles Tuffli, imbirdingrightnow.com )

For birders, it’s like seeing an old friend again, a seasonal reminder of nature’s cycles. Every spring, the arrival of Wilson’s warblers, which sing one of the first warbler songs the Tufflis learned, is cause for high fives and celebration.

“As March progresses, every walk we take in our neighborhood, it’s like, ‘Is today going to be the day when the Willy warbs show up?’” Miles says.

Somehow, a lifetime of seeing the same birds over and over never loses its thrill. At 86, Leveque still feels the same spark that lit up his senses when he began birding more than six decades ago.

“The magic doesn’t go away,” says the retired Santa Rosa Junior College biology professor. “That’s what’s really strange about it. We’ve seen these same birds a million times and it’s still fascinating.”

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