Walking down the Bear Creek Greenway in Ashland on a dazzlingly sunny Sunday morning, you can almost be guaranteed that, without a group of Audubon Society members by your side, you would never have noticed the drama overhead — a sharp-shinned hawk swooping down to attack a woodpecker in the top of a pine and missing it, then seeing the fleeing woodpecker return to the top of the tree in 15 seconds flat, observant but unafraid.
The spectacle thrilled even the veterans at hand. For sheer pleasure and learning, this sport and science of bird watching has to be the most underrated recreation in the world.
A moment later, another uncommon sight — a white-tailed kite sitting in the very top of a bare-limbed tree, seeming to take in the heat of the morning sun but doubtless scanning every bush and tuft of grass for voles, its favorite snack. It's a rare sighting and bird expert Harry Fuller explains how it got its name — from its skill at being able to hover in one place before making its lethal move.
Fuller, who keeps an incredibly informative running patter on the bird scene around us, sets up his spotting scope — a telescope-on-a-tripod — and we all get a few seconds to take in the close-up wonder of this white-bellied raptor.
At the starting point of the hike, by the Ashland Dog Park, Fuller points out one of the most curious bird nests you'll ever see — the home of a bushtit, most of it made from audio tape the creature has picked up in its travels. Unlike the usual nest makings, which fall apart from season to season, this one is permanent.
It's a crisp, bright morning and as the sun climbs higher, the birds venture forth to dine on seeds, grasses or other little creatures, something they won't do early on cloudier, colder days, says Fuller. Birds must always think in terms of metabolism — how much energy it takes to get food versus how much energy that food will supply them. If it's rainy, getting wet while looking for food is a real gamble, as it takes a lot of body heat to get dry.
The group hears about the slight differences between crows and ravens, the latter faster and more agile. Members see wood ducks flying down to Bear Creek from the colder duck ponds of Lithia Park, which start to get ice this time of year.
Red-wing blackbirds, starlings, pigeons, flickers, waxwings — they're darting everywhere and the birdwatchers all have the trained eye needed to find them and guide each other to getting them in their binoculars.
In a tree sit two doves with a red-tailed hawk perched not far away in the same tree. They're prey and predator, so how can that be? Are animals starting to just get along? No, the raptor is slow, even "lumbering" compared with other raptors and the doves know it.
"For most people, it's a great way to appreciate the different ecosystems. It opens up your eyes to the world," says birder Marian Courtice.
Lifelong birder Steve Runnels, the new executive director of ScienceWorks in Ashland, notes there are about 8,600 species of birds and he's logged 2,300 of them into his sightings book, many of them by guiding nature tours around the world.
Bouncing the golden sun off its bright yellow chest feathers, a golden finch perches in the top branches of a now leafless tree, a delight to all, not for its rarity, but for its sheer, cheerful beauty and seeming happiness.
The Rogue Valley Audubon Society, founded in 1973, organizes bird walks like this one most weekends — and some weekdays — during the year.
Other groups, such as Klamath Bird Observatory, Northwest Nature Shop and Wild Birds Unlimited, also collaborate on birds walks in and around the Rogue Valley, so there's almost always someone out there willing to guide complete strangers into the wild world of avian adventure.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.