“What if we don’t make it by 3?” my friend asked.
“We will cross that bridge when we get to it,” I replied.
We arrived at the snow park at Yuba Pass at exactly 3:01 to find a group of about 30, mostly elderly folks, hunkering down in their parkas.
“Geez, what a weird-looking set. Are you sure about this?” I said, hopping out of the car.
As rapidly as I had jumped out of the car, I jumped in again. It was sleeting outside; almost invisible flakes of snow were darting back and forth in the wind, which was hooting in our ears, and the air was freezing cold. That was why our group had looked so ridiculous.
We began our synchronous pantomime—throwing off summer pants and donning thick ones; pulling wool socks over our calves, hiking boots on our feet; shirts and sweaters and jackets and ski caps and gloves; and finally our binoculars around torsos.
A few yards away, we spotted a perfectly circular, eye-level hole in a tree, carved so fresh that the sawdust was still sprinkled on the ground. And majestically sticking its head out of it was a black-backed woodpecker, with its bright yellow head.
This was the beginning of my life as a bird-watcher.
As far back as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by birds. I used to have a recurring dream; that of flying like a bird, soaring in the sky, looking down on fields and orchards and the sea, and then landing in a lush garden full of the most exquisite colors of flowers—magenta, purple, pink, red, fuchsia.
The trip in the Sierras opened up a whole new world for me. Once you have gone snorkeling or diving, a friend once told me, you will look at the ocean only as a surface under which millions of exotic and colorful species lurk. So it was that once I had been bird-watching, or “birding,” as the true professionals call it, I could not look at a forest or a meadow or a marsh or a bay or even a sewage pond without thinking of the birds hidden around.
I did not know that there is a channel named Sierra Valley in the mountains, or for that matter that a channel is an area that is wet in the spring but dry in the summer. In this channel, I discovered, live thousands of willets and kestrels and night herons and pintail ducks and sandhill cranes and cinnamon teals and red-winged blackbirds.
But the bird that caught my fancy in the marsh was the yellow-headed blackbird.
It is a large bird, about 8 to 11 inches long, with the top half of its body and head a bright yellow and the rest pitch black, its colors so vibrant that it will stand out even among a group of tropical parrots. The blackbirds, like all birds, have elaborate rituals. They don colorful plumage in the mating season; they tend to their chicks and guard them as passionately as humans their babies. Then, when their young are ready to fend for themselves, they let them fly away, never to return.
Birds are the most ancient creatures on this earth. Direct descendants of dinosaurs, they provide us a link with another time, when the climate and habitat of our planet was vastly different. They provide a testimonial, not to intelligent design, but to evolution. Because, if God had planned this whole thing as so many people claim, why would she have waited for over 200 million years to create humans? And why would the oldest creatures on this earth be some of the tiniest and the frailest?
I followed the experts, pointing my weak binoculars in the same direction as their Carl Zeiss lenses worth thousands of dollars, and looking through the scopes set up by our teachers. My proud moment came when all by myself, I discovered my favorite blackbird’s nest, hanging on the reeds, allowing me to watch the mother, distinguishable by her brown body, feeding morsels of food to four chicks with their mouths gaping open.
I had gone on this trip at a particularly trying time, because of work problems. I had tried hiking, the gym, and yoga, but nothing had worked. To my amazement, while birding, I needed to use my eyes and ears and legs and the intellect with the result that for four days, I couldn’t give a damn about my boss or anyone else.
There are cultural differences in human response to birds, I have noticed. Birds like the ghar or the gidhar were considered inauspicious, dirty, and unwelcome in India. In California, in contrast, birders go to sewage treatment plants to watch aggressive raptors like vultures and hawks and falcons standing on top of electric poles miles away.
My favorite birds are the songbirds. Take the warbler, for example. This tiny yellow bird makes such a beautiful musical sound, and flits from tree to tree with such playful grace, that it is hard not to fall in love with it.
In America, birding is claimed to be the fastest growing sport, if you can call it that.
In a recent phone call, my brother told me that bird-watching is on the rise as a recreational activity in India too. There are about 650 species of birds in North America, and twice that many in India.
Yet, I have only scores on my life list. I guess even if I devote the rest of my life to birds, chances are I won’t see all of the species in my native and adopted countries. But it sure seems like a worthy goal to follow.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com.