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Of birds and buses

November 23, 2009

They say that if you live in a cold place your blood thickens, enabling you to withstand colder temperatures. Chico isn’t really known for its coldness, in fact I joke that we live in the desert because it’s so hot for so long. These days, however, I’m kind of hoping that my blood will thicken on a seasonal basis because I’m almost at the stage of strapping water bottles to my head. “Put a jersey on, ya big Jessie!” I hear you cry. Well that may provide a temporary solution, and thanks for the suggestion, but the fact remains that it’s getting colder here and it would appear that I’m not physically prepared for it. Admittedly it’s not as cold as Scotland, or Tassie got in the winter, and if we get a slight frost it’ll be a brief and unexpected one. Only twenty minutes up the road in Paradise however, they’re at 2000 ft and it’s unlikely that they they won’t get a good dumping of snow. There’s something of an illusion to the cold here in Chico though, much like the winter in Sydney, it’s not really cold it’s just that the summer is so hot that it feels cold and it gives people the chance to air out their tartan scarves, wooly jumpers, and Uggs.

This part of the Sacramento valley is right on, or under, the Pacific Flyway, which means that at this time of year we are blessed with a huge number of migrating birds stopping on their travels and hanging out in the recently harvested and flooded rice fields. Not only does this provide some excitement for the local hunters, it is also one of the most special times of the year for me as an avid bird nerd. I’m not the kind of bird nerd, however, that takes a thermos of elderberry tea, a telescope and a tartan blanket out to sit in a hide all day just in the hope of spotting a ruddy duck (Oxyura jamaicensis) or two. I prefer to go for long walks and if I see something interesting then cool, I’ll maybe watch it for a bit to make sure I know what it is and just because it’s cool. I also seem to have developed the rather dangerous habit of spotting things while driving. All around the area, as in most places, you can usually spot the occasional hawk sitting on a telegraph pole as you drive by. In the Uk buzzards are the norm, in Australia it’s not so much hawks as kookaburras, galahs and cockatoos, and here in northern California, red-tailed hawks and American kestrels are two of the most conspicuous. Occasionally however, I’ll see something a bit more exciting, or not be able to immediately identify it for some reason which leads to me to crane my neck to look through the upper part of the windshield, stick my head out of the window or lean over to look out the passenger side window, all of which are equally dangerous while driving a moving vehicle. In extreme cases I have been known to stop the car in the middle of the road just to watch whatever bird it was that caught my eye (and before I get any smart-arsed comments, I’m still talking about the feathered variety).

I think I learned this from my uncle Al when on holiday in the Lake District, or on our way to or from the boat on the West Coast of Scotland. He’d pull over, no matter how many cars were behind us, just to look at a peregrine or an eagle while my brother, sister and I would be in the back giving him a hard time (there’s a song that usually followed this but I’ll spare you the details, lets just say he didn’t like it then, and I’m sure he doesn’t like it now). It was my sister who reminded me of this part of my childhood when she was over visiting me in Australia a few years ago. We were on some dirt road on the East coast, just north of Newcastle, looking in vain for a campsite that didn’t exist when, at probably about 70 mph, I screeched to a halt, throwing all kinds of dust into the atmosphere just to show her a wedge-tailed eagle which was soaring at about 3 miles up in the air and discernable only as a fuzzy dot to anything but the most dedicated of  eyes. She found it funny that I had unwittingly picked up this Kamikaze style of ornithology.

Today, however, I was almost gubbed by a big yellow school bus while swerving around the road having spotted my first bald eagle of the season. Along with golden eagles, baldies appear in the valley and foothills in fairly large numbers to take advantage of the seemingly unlimited supply of duck and geese around at this time of year. I’ve been kept fairly well occupied the rest of the year by red-tails, Swainson’s, and other of our year-round residents, but a bald eagle really does cut the custard and is deserving of drastic observation tactics as far as I’m concerned. Maybe not enough to endanger my life or jeopardize the safety of all the little kids in the bus behind me who would have been wondering why there was a ‘Groundskeeper Willie’ look-a-like hanging out the window of his little red car which had stopped in the middle of the road on a blind summit. “Here’s what not to do kids, what not to do”.

Last weekend we were on the coast for the annual pre-thanksgiving get-together with Lex’s family and family friends. It’s a warm-up event and this year I think we accomplished our goals and are all suitably warmed to the challenges that face us on the real Thanksgiving; copious amounts of turkey, beer, wine, mashed potatoes, pie, and brussels sprouts. I also got to practice my stuffing aversion tactics. Why is it that the most pointless and unappealing part of the Thanksgiving/Christmas meal is the most labour-intensive? For this year’s practice effort, Lex’s dad was peeling and chopping chestnuts at all sorts of unmentionable times of the day, why would you bother?

The house we were staying in has a huge bay window looking out over the Pacific ocean, which is one of those views that you can just watch for hours. It also provides a good viewing platform for armchair bird spotting. It’s high enough above ground level that nerds like me are afforded an aspect for observing birds not usually available from the ground. It’s great, I could watch the football, ocean and birds without ever leaving my seat! We spotted a juvenile red-tailed hawk unsuccessfully hunting in the area, crows, vultures, seagulls and all the other usual suspects. Although most people feigned an interest in my occasional ornithological announcements, I think I truly shocked them when I spotted a falcon harassing the residident gang of crows. I was dashing back and forth, looking out this window and that, and climbing over all manner of sleeping bodies just to get a better look and confirm that it was actually a juvenile peregrine and not some unidentifiable imposter. Not only did it look like a juvenile it also had the fearless stupidity of any teenager and was trying to take on vultures, crows, and even the red-tail. It came back a couple more times during the course of the weekend but I never again showed the same enthusiasm, lest I be ridiculed by my brothers-in-law who, by 11.30 a.m. were already halfway through their second or third beer of the day and equally as capable of reducing my visible excitement to frustration and anger, much the same as I had from the back seat of my uncle’s car as a snotty-nosed child.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. CATRIONA permalink
    November 24, 2009 5:54 am

    Good one Gillies!

  2. Janet permalink
    December 13, 2009 8:03 am

    I am so glad some good habitsrubbed off during those early car journeys. Having just got back from Uganda, I can tell you how frustrating it was NOT having my foot near the brake pedal on minbus journeys – I had binocs but didn’t have a decent bird book and no-one else seemed all that interested. For some reason they seemed a bit obsessed with lions and stuff like that. But I can tell you that fish eagles are and kites are as common as muck, Abyssinian hornbills and grey crested storks are pretty fab, and the kingfishers rival those in Aus. The Carmine breasted bee-eaters, sunbirds, pelicans, some big pied hornbill and weaver birds aren’t all that bad either. And I suppose it was OK seeing all those giraffes, baboons, elephants, antelopes, hippos, crocodiles, etc. The lioness suckling her cub, and then going and waking up the big daddy lion to get a bit of romance going was quite cool, too, though the “romance” side of the act was a bit one sided. I was not impressed by his approach, really.

    Frost in Scotland takes a bit of getting used to now!

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