The first moment: at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Willows. Sound comes at you from the sunset, which is happening underneath the dome of an aqua-blue sky, banded on its low end by a ribbon of flax yellow, which sits atop a blood-red horizon that melds into the purple of land. The sound is impossibly loud. Two, five, ten — who knows how many thousand snow geese have lifted from a marsh forming one huge skein of geese, a swarm of geese, a living tornado of geese, and is flying toward me honking and flapping, making boisterous, booming geese noise so loud that their sound is all the sound there is to hear.
This. Is. Thrilling.
That was written four years ago on my first birding trip. It was mid-November, and I was 85 miles north of Sacramento slogging around a marsh in the fog. Three million ducks and 750,000 geese migrate to the refuge, and it seemed like I was seeing all of them all at once.
It’s taken awhile to figure out what I was going to do with birding. I knew I didn’t want to study birds, although I’ve taken a half-dozen classes. I knew I didn’t want to keep a bird list. Birders keep all these lists: all the birds they’ve seen in San Diego County, in California, in Baja. Lists of all the birds they’ve seen this year. A rare-bird list. A life list. Lots of lists.
I have a relationship going with my birding in that I understand what I want from it, and part of that understanding is understanding that what I want from it will change over time. For now and for the last while, I’ve wanted to enjoy looking at birds. Which is harder than it sounds.
I want to keep a beginning birder’s mind for as long as I can. So, when I look at a common bird, a mallard, say, the sight of it can still make me blink. I own birding books and always carry a birding guide, but I don’t study them. What I want is to take in the bird, its feathers, flight, coloring, perching, foraging, just as it is. Make every time the first time.
The second moment: a couple years ago, I spent four nights at a Soto Zen retreat center in the Santa Cruz Mountains. That first night we met in the zendo, a 40-by-40 wooden building set on the side of a ravine, mats on the floors, big black cushions on top of mats, windows going all around and set low to the floor. So low that when you walked up to them and looked out to the evening mist and the forest, you were at tree-top level. I felt like I was floating in the forest with the birds, like I was living with them, part of the natural backdrop.
Which is a long intro to standing on top of Hawk Hill. Said hill is 940 feet high, located on the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. From its peak, you can see San Francisco, Ocean Beach, San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz, the East Bay, and the Farallon Islands. Jaw-dropping. It is also the site — the bottleneck, if you will — of the largest known migration path of diurnal raptors (birds of prey) on the West Coast. The land formation north of Hawk Hill acts as a funnel, so that raptors, by the tens of thousands, are guided here every fall. There are exceptions — each species has its own timetable, but, generally speaking, high season is mid-September to mid-October.
I’ve wanted to see it. Who knows why... I’ve always wanted to see Monument Valley, always wanted to visit old Montreal, and, while we’re at it, I’ve always wanted to have more money than I can spend. Happily, this wish got fulfilled. I did make it to Hawk Hill on Sunday.
It’s warm, in the mid-70s, almost no wind on the hill. Gray and white wisps of fog move in and out and in and out faster than I would have thought possible. Hawk counters are here, of course. They’re Golden Gate Raptor Observatory volunteers, and they’re here from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, save for rainy days, from mid-August to mid-December.
A volunteer, male, mid-60s, short brown hair, white mustache, khaki pants, calls out, “Sharpie.” Three other volunteers grunt agreement. I raise my binoculars, which I note are identical to the volunteer’s binoculars, find the sharp-shinned hawk sailing over Angel Island. More precisely, I find a tiny speck, a tiny, tiny bit of black smudge in the sky. How in the hell can anyone possibly know what that speck is?
See Part 2 of Hawk Hill.