Dressed in blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a fleece vest, a slight man stood on the edge of a path overlooking a Mokelumne River trying to persuade a ruby crown kinglet to come closer.
“Ch ch ch ch ch,” he said, imitating the bird’s call. “They respond well to the noise I’m making.”
In any other circumstance, a grown man making lip-buzzing noises at an open field is at least odd. But not today.
David Yee is the past president of the Western Field Ornithologists, a past president of the Central Valley Bird Club, and the official San Joaquin County Birds Record keeper. He is an expert of western birds and their calls, able to pick out and identify a single song among an entire forest chorus.
He led a group of a dozen local birdwatchers, decked out in windbreakers and walking shoes, which gathered at 9 a.m. at Heritage Oak Winery in Acampo to wander among the vineyards and along the river in search of the next bird on their list. Tom Hoffman, winery owner, keeps 50 acres of land out of production to provide habitat for migratory birds. The property is dotted with boxes for owls and bluebirds to make their homes in, and the main patio has about eight birdfeeders.
It’s not just birds Hoffman looks out for. Two overturned clay pots with small square holes near the bottom were underneath a couple of trees in the patio. Robert Shields, one member of the group who works as a wildlife biologist, recognized the pots as toad houses and revealed the small squishy creatures living underneath.
The walkers were eager to learn more about the world around them.
“We didn’t realize how much birds migrate in our area,” said Pam Magnasco. She got into birding about three months ago when she followed a walk led by Yee at the winery. Yee holds walks once a month, with a dedicated following of birders.
Dan Magnasco, her husband, came along, and described the hawks, vultures, swallows, owls and finches he can see in his home garden near Turner Road and Lower Sacramento Road.
Yee said California birders are lucky.
“Spring comes early in the valley,” said Yee. “Elsewhere, on the East Coast and in the South, people are still very much in winter, and the birds aren’t doing anything. But here, things are waking up.”
A cluster of lesser gold finches gathered on a long narrow birdfeeder filled with seeds. An Anna’s hummingbird stopped at a red feeder for a snack. And a red-tailed hawk perched on a telephone pole 250 feet away, visible through a scope Yee set up.
Yee said late February is an essential time to keep birdfeeders full. Much of the naturally growing food has died off or been eaten, and what’s growing now isn’t good food for birds. And birds need more food than usual for extra energy to make it through the cold nights, to help them through the molting stage for spring feather, and to prepare for spring migration.
The morning trek was a three hour leisurely walk through Hoffman’s property. Yee stopped the group often to listen for birdcalls, and look ahead on the path for birds before the walkers got too close and spooked them back into the trees.
What did they see?
California towhees, American goldfinches, a spotted towhee, an acorn woodpecker, goldencrown sparrows, orange crowned warblers, the California quail, to name just a few.
Bob and Farley Cross were enthralled. They started birding three years ago when they came on their first walk with Yee. Since then, the couple has invested in binoculars, a portable telescope and even installed a bluebird box on Hoffman’s property on Valentine’s Day. They take their gear to several great birding spots in the area, like Lodi Lake Nature Area, the Woodbridge Wildlife Preserve and the Cosumnes River Preserve.
“Backyards are good, too, amazingly,” said Farley Cross. “I can spot thirty species just around my house.”
She’s on the lookout for a red crossbill, which some fellow birders have seen near Sacramento.
But on the way back to the winery, the group was keeping an eye out for a good look at a bluebird.
“When you see blue feathers in good light, it’s really electric,” said Bob Cross.
A flash of blue cut across the vineyard and settled on a wire. Bob Farley trained his binoculars on the creature and grinned as it flew away.
“That was really brilliant, wasn’t it?” he said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.