Bird by bird.
You may have an image of birders as slightly odd characters dressed like Marlin Perkins and sloshing about in mushy terrain with huge binoculars glued to their foreheads. You would be only partly right.
Some of the most adventurous people we know are birders - intrepid folks facing down marshlands, forests, and the ocean deep itself in search of their brightly plumed prey.
Birding has never enjoyed a greater following (some 30 million at last count), and if you've ever been tempted to give it a try, now is the time: the great fall migrations are beginning along the Pacific and Rockies flyways.
We're offering a list of the best birding spots in the West, tips for beginning birders, a primer on gear, and, just to get you in the spirit, a blow-by-blow account of a bird-watching contest by two of our resident birders, who attempted, on a single day at each's favorite spot, to record the most species and view the most memorable spectacles of birds.
Inland: Klamath Basin
By choosing to visit the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Northern California, I figure I can't lose. Centrally located on the Pacific Flyway, this 39,000-acre refuge is part of the 159,000-acre Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges straddling the California-Oregon border. It boasts vast, peaceful wetlands surrounded by grain fields - a perfect stop-and-shop for all kinds of waterfowl (most of the ducks and geese flying south from Alaska, Canada, and Siberia funnel through here).
On a fall morning at the refuge headquarters in Tulelake, California, about 30 miles south of Klamath Falls, Oregon, I meet up with local Audubon Society member Kevin Spencer. He's a lean, intense guy, and I soon discover he's also got hawklike vision (20/13) and is so skilled that he's often hired by federal agencies to do bird surveys. (Yep, a ringer, but not specifically outlawed in the bet.)
Right away we spot both a barn owl and a great horned owl perched high in a nearby golden willow tree. We linger there awhile, then are drawn to a small creek bed where we hear high chirping notes as tender as any boy soprano's. Spencer whistles the song back, then adds a pish-pish sound to draw the bird closer. Finally, we log not one, but three species of song sparrow.
We pile into Spencer's car and head for the auto tour route circling the refuge. Soon we're cruising past plowed tracts of dark earth and huge swaths of harvested barley that geese rest and feed in. Looking up, we spot dozens of hawks atop the telephone poles - red-tailed, Swainson's, Cooper's.
Beside a small basin of shallow blue water, we park, lured by a high-pitched honking. Overhead, a wedge of cackler geese bombs by. I cup my hands behind my ears to draw in the cackling calls made by this smaller cousin of the Canada goose. They land on the water near some white-fronted geese paddling in conga-line formation past thousands of ducks. We check off duck species at a furious pace - cinnamon teal, blue-winged teal, golden-eye, canvasback. At day's end, I've logged 65 species - probably enough to earn the new birdhouse promised to the winner.
As the sun slips toward the horizon, we stop at a series of deep pools near the refuge's south end. In the backdrop, chocolate-colored lava cones are ringed by mist and the snowy tip of Mount Shasta peeks above smooth, tan hills. Suddenly, squawks ring out over the pools and a cloud of snow geese lifts off like a pile of confetti sucked aloft in a twister.
Spencer puts the count of the flock at 1,500 to 2,000 birds. "Quite a spectacle, isn't it?" It's all the prize I need.
The main refuge headquarters and visitor center are just west of Tulelake, California. Tulelake is on State Highway 139, 4 miles south of the Oregon border. (916) 667-2231.
Coast: San Simeon
California's San Simeon coast is a place where the perfumes of sage, fennel, and coyote brush mingle with salt air, and where the cries of wrentits, hawks, and shorebirds rise above the deep pounding of autumn surf.
I start just after dawn at the brackish lagoon formed where San Simeon Creek hits the beach. A small armada of American coots floats through the mist there, just up the creek from a pied-billed grebe that struggles with an uncooperative fish.
Tall and elegant, a snowy egret wades through the far shallows, scaring up aquatic prey. Nearby, a great blue heron remains as still as a statue, ready to strike.
A belted kingfisher zips by, patrolling the pond tirelessly. Then a royal tern splashes down in the midst of a flotilla of gulls, in pursuit of a minnow. The gulls - Western, mew, Heermann's, California, and ring-billed - seem unimpressed. Beyond them, just past the breakers, a squadron of brown pelicans dive-bombs for fish with all the adroitness of terns.
American white pelicans fish the open water by floating along and scooping up fish that come too near. Three species of cormorants and rafts of Western grebes, which look like miniature swans, also dot the sea, while surf scoters, mergansers, and red-necked grebes work the waves.
A few miles farther up State Highway 1, just south of the lighthouse at Piedras Blancas, jagged black rocks lie a few yards off sandy beaches. That's two habitats in one spot, with a third - coastal chaparral - lining the low cliffs behind the beach. I flush blue-gray gnatcatchers, yellow-rumped warblers, and both golden- and white-crowned sparrows on my way to the beach, where a score of sanderlings chase the waves like sprinters. Plovers, whimbrels, and marbled godwits are also on the beach, but they look more like loiterers than athletes.
On the rocks beyond, the long red bills of black oystercatchers compromise their camouflage. The birds make a good living with them, though, prying open shellfish and picking off limpets.
More to the north, I head across a patch of ice plant to look at a huge congregation of gulls on the beach. Suddenly all take wing, and I curse my brazen approach. But then I see the real reason for their panic: a golden eagle plunges down onto an unwary ground squirrel just up the beach. A few seconds later - the squirrel secure in its talons - the eagle takes off to eat alone somewhere over the hills.
By noon the birding has quieted down, and I realize I've probably dawdled too much to be a match for Lora. I get a few more easy birds to fatten up my list - cowbirds I see near some cows (go figure), crows mobbing another eagle, and scrub jays in the sycamores - but I doubt that my 57 birds will win the day. That's okay, though; it's been a gorgeous day at a stunning place.
This 15-mile stretch begins in San Simeon State Park (just north of Cambria, California) and continues north on State I to Salmon Creek. To learn what rare birds might be in the area, call the Morro Coast Audubon Society's rare bird alert at (805) 528-7182.
RELATED ARTICLE: TIPS FOR BEGINNING BIRDERS
* You'll see the most birds during migration (April-May and September-October) and nesting seasons (March-June).
* In the early morning, birds are active and vocal, and the light is generally clear.
* Join guided bird walks and observe how the best birders operate.
* The edge of adjoining habitats offers a greater variety of birds - a woodland edge draws birds from both forest and grassland.
* To locate birds through binoculars, fix your eyes on the bird, then bring the binoculars up.
* Use the process of elimination to identify a bird: consider not only appearance, behavior, and field marks, but habitat, range, and distribution.
* Identify the 10 most common birds visiting your yard; keep a list and build from there.
- L.J.F. and J. M.
RELATED ARTICLE: The West's best birding
Madera Canyon. Multiple habitats and birder-oriented accommodations (Santa Rita Lodge). Santa Rita Mountains, south of Tucson; (520) 625-8746.
Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Attracts a huge number of over-wintering migrants. In Fremont; (510) 792-0222.
Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Single-day count of 116 species (nation's highest until recently) recorded. Near Monterey; (408) 728-2822.
Newport Back Bay. Shorebirds, raptors, songbirds, marsh birds, ducks, and skimmers. Near Newport Beach; (714) 640-6746.
Bosque del Apache NWR. Wintering sandhill cranes. South of Albuquerque; (505) 835-1828.
Malheur NWR. Migration peaks October-November; many resident birds as well. South of Burns in southeast Oregon; (541) 493-2612.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. As many as 600,000 wintering waterfowl - including up to 20,000 tundra swans. Northeast shore of the Great Salt Lake; (801) 723-5887.
Nisqually NWR. Migrating birds arrive this month. At exit 114 off I-5 between Olympia and Tacoma; (360) 753-9467.
- L. J. F. and J. M.
RELATED ARTICLE: Basic gear for birding
FIELD GUIDES. Three favorites of expert birders: Field Guide to the Birds of North America (National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C., 1987; $21). Detailed illustrations and helpful organization, with bird portraits and range maps. The Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds, by Roger Tory Peterson (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1990; $17.95). Popular classic; drawings point out key field marks. All the Birds of North America, concept and design by Jack L. Griggs (HarperPerennial, New York, 1997; $19.95). To make identification easier, species are keyed by icons, colored margins lead you to bird groups, and information on feeding and foraging behavior is included.
BINOCULARS. Birds move fast, so quick and easy focus is essential, as is close focus (10 to 15 feet). Don't even consider fixed-focus binoculars. Standard magnification is 7 power, but if you have a steady hand, you'll see more detail with 10 power. Get binoculars with long eye relief if you wear glasses. Avoid zoom binoculars. Dogleg-barreled porro-prism binoculars made with BaK-4 prisms perform outstandingly and are relatively inexpensive. Straight-tubed roof-prism binoculars are smaller and lighter but cost more. Armoring and waterproofing are worthwhile. Compact binoculars are easy to carry and work well in good light (armored and water-proof, Bausch & Lomb Elite Binoculars, above, are a good bet). But for a bright image in low light, you'll need full-size binoculars with large objective lenses.
DAY PACK/POUCH. The best are lightweight, water-resistant, and hold your field guide and binoculars within quick reach. One we like is the Eagle Creek Guide Bag (left), a water-resistant travel pouch on a shoulder strap, with room for both guide and binocs, plus a key clip and an organizer panel with zip pockets. $30; (800) 874-9925.
CARRYALL VEST. As an alternative to the day pack, vests can better distribute the weight of a heavy guide and binocs. The REI Explorer Vest (right) has two front pockets wide enough to carry binocs and a field guide, and deep inner pockets to hold snacks and perhaps a rain poncho. Made of heavy cotton, the vest is lightweight yet durable. $35; (800) 426-4840 or http://www.REI.com.
- L. J. F. and J. M.