When local biologist David Yee was about 9 years old, his parents bought him a telescope for Christmas so he could observe the stars.
But instead of focusing on the stars, something else caught his eye in the viewfinder that day.
“I looked out the living room window and the telescope was pointed at a tree in the neighbor’s yard. I looked in there and saw a bird in the oak tree.”
With his curiosity piqued by the discovery, Yee went and found a little field guide his parents had given him. He excitedly thumbed through the pages and was able to find the bird in the guide and identify it as an acorn woodpecker.
“I couldn’t believe I found it on my own, and was able to identify it,” Yee says.
Yee describes that moment as a life-changing experience. It’s when his love for birdwatching was born.
“It was an overnight thing. I just wanted to find birds in my yard. It was all I remember really doing, and it became my hobby.”
On a recent Saturday morning, a group of local bird enthusiasts gather in the parking lot of Heritage Oak Winery in Acampo.
They’re clad in warm jackets and sweaters, with cameras and binoculars around their necks and comfortable shoes on their feet.
There to lead them on a two-hour stroll around the Heritage Oak Winery vineyard, along the Mokelumne River bank and across nearby riparian woodlands, is Yee.
His childhood passion had led him to pursue a degree in biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a specialty in birds.
Now a cosmetic chemist at Lois Yee Cosmetics, a company started by his mother, Yee has remained close to the birding world, sharing his love of birdwatching as a tour guide the past four years.
On this particular day, the tour hasn’t even left the parking lot and the first bird has been spotted. A red-tailed hawk is perched on an electrical wire about 300 yards away, hard to spot with the naked eye, but brought clearly into focus through binoculars.
A participant with an extensive list of different bird species in hand makes notes of all the birds spotted. Black boxes on the list mark the birds spotted during the previous month’s walk, including a Sandhill crane, a sharp-shinned hawk and a golden-crowned sparrow.
By the time the group of 10 has made its way along the river and to the trail’s end, about 50 different species have been spotted.
Yee compliments the landowners for their generous sharing of their property.
“The Hoffmans know they have something special, and they want to share it. It’s unusual for a working farm to give such access to visitors,” he says.
There is not a lot of this type of habitat access on the Mokelumne River, says Yee, adding that though none of the bird species that they regularly spot are necessarily rare, the abundance of species is what makes the area very special.
And Yee is still fascinated by the birds.
“I never lost that passion.” he says.