When it comes to birds and the enjoyment of observing them, which is called birding these days, it’s the proverbial “location, location, location”. For many of us the imagery is almost instant; flamingos and the caustic lakes of northern Tanzania, macaws and the clay banks of Peru, penguins and the ice-sheets of Antarctica. Appropriately, a desire for cranes and waterfowl leads many to the amazing San Joaquin/Sacramento Delta. These majestic birds, most nesting to the far north, are often viewed through a layer of fog, as their presence is restricted mostly to the “wintering” months of October-March. This has led many to believe for many years that the best birding in the Delta is restricted to those months, with experienced birders at the top of the list. I should know, because I was once one of them.
I’ve been an active birder since childhood. And being born and raised in the Stockton/Lodi area, I cut my birding teeth right here in the Delta. But like many a youngster, once I got a taste of birding along the rich California coast, in San Francisco Bay, and up in the Sierran highlands during my late teens, it was hard to go home. But, I eventually did go home.
My “coming of age” as a birder of the Delta coincided with my renewed love and appreciation for the Delta. Four years of college in the Monterey Bay area along with birding travels around the country made it easy to see the Delta in a lesser light. But, life happens, and as a young couple living in Stockton, my wife and I began to fall back in love with the Delta.
Growing up in the Delta, nearly all of my friends did activities that took advantage of the unique environment it provided; fishing, hunting, boating, water skiing, bicycling, year-round gardening, and of course nature-watching. For most, the nature-watching was a natural bi-product of one’s activity. But, as in all cultures, the “out-door environment” becomes as important as the activity itself. And in time it often defines the activity. I can go fishing anywhere in the world, but I always compare it to my best days fishing as a child with my father. Boating on a warm summer day as the sun is setting is wonderful anywhere in the world, but nothing compares to where one was raised doing it, and in my case it was the Delta.
My parents loved the outdoors and introduced me to it at a very young age. But they never were birders, nor did they ever become birders. Birding for me was a bi-product of living in the Delta and seeing so much wildlife while fishing and golfing with my family. In time, birding was my thing when my family was out doing recreation. It became part of my identity, not only within my family, but also within my community as a person growing up in the Delta. My parents raised me within the context of Delta life. I was educated my entire formative life within the context of the Delta environment. When local farmers talks about the drought affecting their crops, it all makes sense to me, even though I’m not a farmer. For me the birds of the Delta are a big part of that contextual architecture.
It’s easy to become disappointed and disillusioned with one’s hometown. American communities often change too fast, or too slow. And for those who don’t move away, the desire to do so is often very present. There’s often a disconnect that develops over time. I have felt it many times in my lifetime living here in the Delta. One of the very important aspects that keep me living here and wanting to stay here is the culture of the area. And this culture isn’t defined by my family and friends alone. It’s the entire environment. My desire to work here, be productive, give to the community is tied directly to the environment. And sometimes when community life becomes just too overwhelming, I just drive out into the Delta and do some birding. Life again becomes manageable. And I can do it all year round.
On those cold and foggy winter days, thousands of Sandhill Cranes and Tundra Swans warm my spirit. On warm summer days I can witness a pair of Swainson’s Hawks nesting in my favorite Valley Oak, or I can visit my favorite colony of the declining Burrowing Owl just outside of Stockton in the Delta farmlands. And suddenly I notice the cool Delta breezes, and all is good. And during periods of Spring and Fall migration, it has now been determined that the Central Valley is one of the prime spots in the entire West where bird migrants of all types are found in surprisingly big numbers. Birders far and wide now flow into the Delta during April-May, and then again in August-October to witness amazing numbers of our favorite songbirds, such as kingbirds, warblers, buntings, and orioles. Strategic early-morning visits to our tree-lined waterways often dazzle one’s optic nerves as these birds of passage make their long-distance treks from the Central American tropics to the boreal forests of Canada and back.
The birdlife and all the wildlife of the Delta are constant reminders of my connection to my past with the region. They educate me on the history of the entire Central Valley and, in particular, my home. They convince me to continue to lay down my roots in this area for future generations. And they convince me that continuing to live here is as good as anywhere else in the world.
David is a local birding expert, educator, biologist, and chemist. He is the author of the Checklist of the Birds of San Joaquin County. He’s an active member of the San Joaquin Audubon Society and the Central Valley Bird Club. Photo by Suga Moriwaki