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Birds Landing: Discovering simple pleasures in Bay Area country

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Posted: Friday, October 31, 2008 10:00 pm

At the bottom of yellow hills, where old wooden windmills creek in the shadows of massive turbines is a town you've probably never visited.

It doesn't have a movie theater, restaurant supermarket or even a gas station.

It has 13 residents. Nine homes. A pink tavern. A hunting preserve. And, besides an eerie sense of the past, that's about it.

Halfway between Rio Vista and Fairfield, a narrow road off Highway12 leads to even quieter countryside.

The hills are dry, and, as they grow nearer, the massive windmills seem like creepy fixtures in a sci-fi movie.

Some spin. Others are motionless. Sheep wander in herds around farmhouses in fields of wheat, barley and oat. The craftsman houses are scattered and old, their paint cracking under the weather. Rusty farm equipment lay in weeds and tall grass like hidden eggs on Easter.

This is Birds Landing.

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Tell Ms. Shirley I sent you

Still open for business is the tavern, where 81-year-old Shirley Paolini, known to everyone as Miss Shirley, serves beer, wine, soda, Gatorade and licorice. She grew up across the street, behind the store that has been closed for years. The tavern itself is a library that holds the town's history. Black and white photographs hang on the walls, including a snapshot of John Bird, who founded Birds Landing in 1874. Paolini's daughter-in-law's homemade jams are available for sale. Her crossword puzzle lay in the folded newspaper on the table. It seems more like a living room than a tavern.

Her guests are few, but regular. A quiet man sits at the bar, over a pile of broken peanut shells laying on the floor. Without saying anything to him, Paolini goes into the back room, pops off the top of a beer bottle and pours it into a glass. Another customer comes in, and he and Paolini half-heartedly joke about buying windmills, making a fortune and moving far away.

The tavern is one of the last pieces of Bird's Landing. Even the single-room schoolhouse has been turned into a clubhouse for Birds Landing Hunting Preserve and Sporting Clays. The hunting facility is the reason people drive off the beaten path of Highway 12 to go to Birds Landing.

A community of hunters in a small town

With almost 1,200 acres adjacent to the Suisun Marsh, the preserve is prime land for pheasant and chukar hunting.

There are almost no locals in Birds Landing. Most of the hunters come in from surrounding cities: Oakley, Fairfield, Lodi, Vacaville. Some arrive in lifted trucks, dressed in head-to-toe camouflage with their trained labs and German short hairs heeling at their side.

Others show up in Jaguars, dressed in jeans or khakis shorts. They're usually the ones to hunt clay pigeons - small, round discs that shoot across the sky from machines in the trees and tall structures resembling a child's backyard fort.

The discs that sprint out on the ground and hop over small bumps in the dirt are made to simulate hunting rabbits, preserve tenant Jimmy Reed explains. Reed is from Texas, and has been in the hunting business for a long time. He wears a camouflage jacket and drives a quadrunner rigged with cables and a tool box around the course. It's his job to make sure beginners keep loaded guns pointed into the fields and machines from going haywire.

On a recent morning, Reed had a machine to fix. One of the machines hidden behind a yellow tree malfunctioned and kept spitting out one clay disc after another. The orange and black discs landed in a field of broken clay that resembled a graveyard of smashed pumpkins.

Spencer "Fergie" Ferguson, who wears oversized ear protection and a tooled leather holster for his ammunition and water bottle, and his hunting buddies - Mike Johnson, Al Repard and Ron Cleland - get together whenever they can get time off work. For an easy, fun game, they hunt clay pigeons. In a golf cart, they ride to all 14 stations. The shooter stands in front, his shotgun in position. When he gives the signal - usually by saying "pull" - one person releases a button that sends the black disc flying through the air. If the shooter hits a clay disc, it shatters it into pieces. With the first disc in the air, the person with the trigger presses another button, sending an orange disc from the opposite direction.

The different-colored discs flying in other directions are meant to take the shooter's eye of the main target, Reed explains. The discs usually shoot out at 40 mph, but can go up to 115 mph.

It's all about skill, how well you know your gun, but mainly it's about being out with the guys.

"It's a lot of fun. It's relaxing is what it is," said Mike Johnson. "I was born with a gun in one hand and a rod in the other."

'It's a whole family thing'

Club manager Diane Lofano says clay pigeons is a growing sport. The facility is not only a popular spot for private parties and mother-and-son bonding sessions, there are events all year long, including a gun safety day for children.

"It's a whole family thing," Lofano said.

It's the small café at the preserve that is the local diner/café/hangout. It was an old classroom bought by the preserve 25 years ago. Glen Winters, who has lived in Birds Landing since 1952, graduated from the one-room schoolhouse in 1957. There were five students in his high school graduating class - the biggest class in the school's history.

Now, it's mint green and white linoleum squares are still on the floor, and stuffed birds hang in the window. In the corner - probably where the teacher stood - is the grill that prepares eggs and tri-tip sandwiches.

Claim to fame

Aside from the hunting preserve, it was Clint Eastwood who took Birds Landing to Hollywood. It was July of 1982. Eastwood and his band of filmmakers brought their trailers and scripts to Birds Landing, where they filmed "Honky Tonk Man," a film about a small, Oklahoma town during the Depression.

Paolini remembers it well. Eastwood parked his trailer in her front yard for two weeks. The film crew transformed her tavern into the fictional Myrtle's Diner and the town market into the Choo-Choo Café.

"There were 12,000 to 14,000 people in there every day," said the feisty Paolini, as she flipped through pages of an old photo album. That's the most the town has probably ever seen at once.

Because she says there are only nine houses and 13 residents, locals aren't her biggest business.

"I get people from any country, anywhere," she said, and she has the guest books to prove it. The first guest book, her husband, Mel's, old cash book, shows all types of visitors: Those riding their bikes through, and those even visiting from the Netherlands.

As customers come and go, the quaint and special Birds Landing will last as long as the wood buildings stand, as long as there is waterfowl to hunt and as long as Miss Shirley continues to open beer bottles for her customers.

"I don't intend to get lost or retire," Paolini said, standing behind her bar, the American flag hanging on the front, letting the few passersby know she's open for business.

Contact Lodi Living editor at laurenn@lodinews.com.

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