Photo by Robert Burroughs
The Group consists of six or eight of the hardest of the hard core, people who work at birding as if it were some peculiar kind of full-time job.
Place the following in order of importance:
- (A) Food
- (B) World peace
- (C) A lanceolated warbler
— from Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book
Guy McCaskie. “Guy lost control of the car when he tried to make that turn. Suddenly we were going sideways, sliding down the road."
Photo by Robert Burroughs
The call came through to Elizabeth Copper’s home in Coronado on a September evening in 1980. A black-billed cuckoo had been sighted on Point Reyes, a hilly peninsula that juts into the ocean thirty miles north of San Francisco. Copper, one of the most active and experienced birders in the state, knew right away it was an extremely rare event. Black-billed cuckoos had been seen only three times before in California, and never once had the birds lingered for more than a day before moving on. This would be her first chance, maybe her last, to see one in the state.
Elizabeth Copper is out birding from daybreak to early afternoon, driving a circuit that includes Point Loma, Batiquitos Lagoon, and the Tia Juana River Valley.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
After a night full of anxiety. Copper received a phone call in the morning verifying the cuckoo was still there, then boarded the first available jet to San Francisco with fellow birder Guy McCaskie. “We got to San Francisco about noon,’’ she remembers. “We had reserved a rental car in advance — something big and fast, I don’t remember the model. Guy drove, and he’s a good driver, but it was the scariest car ride I’ve ever been on in my life.’’
Jerry Oldenettel: “Your rank depends on how good you are at identifying birds; if you screw up, you automatically slip a little in everyone’s eyes.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
McCaskie knew it was no time to worry unnecessarily about stoplights or slow traffic; a migrating bird that is off course, as the cuckoo was, can disappear as quickly and mysteriously as it shows up. Speeding north through urban San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge, he turned westward in San Rafael, and soon he and Copper were racing out across the grassy hills of the point.
Richard Webster's ability to identify quickly even distant birds is unsurpassed among the state’s birders.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
“We had lived through everything so far, but then we had to turn off the main road onto a dirt road,’’ Copper continues. (The cuckoo had been seen in a canyon two miles from the main road.) “Guy lost control of the car when he tried to make that turn. Suddenly we were going sideways, sliding down the road toward a cattle guard that had these big posts. . . . And what was going through my mind was, ‘If we don’t hit it too hard, if we’re still intact, we’re close enough to walk from here. We can come back for the car later.’
The primary format for competition is “listing." Southern California birders have a nationwide reputation for being the most competitive listers of all.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
"Guy managed to save us, but he admitted later that he was already thinking about walking the rest of the way, too.’’ When the two of them finally did reach the mouth of the canyon, they jumped out of the car and spotted the cuckoo right away. It was in a willow thicket, surrounded by about forty people with binoculars and telescopes.
“It’s a measure of how intense birding can be that some people really do make up birds they’ve seen.”
Photo by Robert Burroughs
A birder is simply someone who looks at birds, but the special term “birder” — as distinguished from “bird-watcher” or “bird enthusiast” — is one hint of the depth of their passion. Birders are not kindly old ladies in windbreakers and tennis shoes, they are mostly aggressive young men and women who have survived countless airplane flights, boat trips, and all-night car rides in the pursuit of rare birds. In California alone they spent millions of dollars last year on travel, books, binoculars, telescopes, park entrance fees, sea sickness pills, and other outdoor accessories.
San Diego County has the highest diversity of birds of any county in North America.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
There are at least several hundred active birders in San Diego County, and perhaps two dozen who are truly competent at identifying birds in the field. But even among these experts there is the Group. The Group consists of six or eight of the hardest of the hard core, people who work at birding as if it were some peculiar kind of full-time job. Sometimes they work alone, but more often together, chasing after and identifying virtually every unusual bird that alights in the county. These are people who think nothing of driving 350 miles — or 450, or 1450 — in a single day on the chance of seeing one rare species.
People tend to drift in and out of the Group as a result of outside pressures — jobs, girlfriends, a move to another city — but for the last year and a half four of the faces have been constant: Guy McCaskie of Imperial Beach, often called the dean (and sometimes the Pope) of California birders, who started the state’s current craze back in 1957; Elizabeth Copper, a professional field ornithologist from Coronado who has matched McCaskie’s sightings almost bird for bird in the last few years; Richard Webster, a recent immigrant to San Diego from Oxnard, whose ability to identify quickly even distant birds is unsurpassed among the state’s birders; and Jerry Oldenettel, a laser researcher from Normal Heights who can be found birding almost any morning — any morning very early — with McCaskie and Copper.
One recent Saturday at 3:30 a.m., all four meet at the Denny’s coffee shop on Mollison Avenue in El Cajon in preparation for a full day of serious birding. On this particular night the Group has been augmented by Garth Alton, a competent birder down for a visit from the Bay Area, and one coffee-gulping journalist, originally curious about these ornithological extremists but at the moment preoccupied with the ungodly hour they have chosen to meet. As I understand it, the plan is to “hit” various places in or near the Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea, and then drive through Borrego Springs in order to reach Lake Henshaw before sunset. Wasting any daylight at all would mean missing potential birds — an unthinkable prospect — so the idea is to reach the Imperial Valley by dawn, necessitating this early-morning rendezvous.
At this hour, the coffee shop’s bright lights and windows covered with cute Christmas paintings seem mindlessly cheerful in comparison to the cold December night outside. The place is surprisingly busy, with the clientele consisting mostly of weary-looking couples, adolescent girls, and bearded men in wool shirts, jeans, and cowboy hats. A small, elflike man with a bald shiny head flits from table to table, wisecracking to anyone who will listen to him. A regular here, he clearly lost control of his mental faculties long ago, but the other patrons refrain from bidding him bug off. Perhaps they feel charitable because of the Christmas season, but more likely it is the compassion of those who are likewise awake in the middle of the night with nowhere to go.
Luckily, not even the Group can endure this purgatory for long. McCaskie, the only person present who has a normal appetite at this hour, finishes his oatmeal, muffin, and orange juice, pushes the plates away, and scans the tables nearby. “Let’s get out of here,” he says. “We’re missing birding.”
We travel down the huge, empty freeway toward Alpine. Copper, McCaskie, Webster, and I ride in Copper’s Volvo, and Alton and Oldenettel follow in Oldenettel’s old yellow Volkswagen. The headlights of occasional oncoming cars stab deeply into our eyes, which are unaccustomed to being open at this time of night. Every bodily instinct demands sleep — after all, if humans were nocturnal, it would have been apparent millions of years ago — but the coffee we have just finished makes sleep impossible. Having brought along my copy of Birds of North America (an invaluable field guide for any beginning birder), I wonder glumly if I should have brought my star map, too.
Copper drives, with McCaskie up front and Webster and me in the back. The talk centers almost exclusively on birds, and where we will go to look for them. The Group is already aware there are snow geese at the Salton Sea, laughing gulls at Finney Lake, sandhill cranes in agricultural fields south of Brawley. The only thing to be settled is what places we will go first, and McCaskie’s suggestions are the ones that usually carry the most weight. At forty-six he is not only the senior member of the Group but "the driving force behind birding in California,” as Copper says.
One former member of the Group has described birders as “an incredibly narrow cross-section of society; they’re mostly male, above average in intelligence, well above average in education, above average in income, and exclusively white.” McCaskie fits all the categories. He is a tall, heavyset man with longish silvery hair, and speaks with a trace of a Scottish accent. He was only twenty-one years old when he arrived in Lake Tahoe, California in 1957, not long out of a Scottish academy and recently discharged from the British Army. Like a lot of people in Great Britain, he had become interested in birds as a child, but he was accustomed to the British penchant of looking for the rarest, most unexpected birds one can find. Birds use a complex biological system to navigate during migration, but a certain percentage of them have genetically defective systems. These freaks of nature — called vagrants — can turn up almost anywhere, far from their usual range. Birds that should be nesting in North Africa have been sighted in Scotland; fork-tailed flycatchers from South America have been found in Maine. But in 1957, no one in California was looking for vagrants. Instead, the birders here (what scattered few there were, anyway), were content to spend half a day watching nesting pelicans, woodpeckers, and other common species. McCaskie was amazed.
“They went to see things that were bound to be there,” he says. “To me, it was anticlimactic to not look for the unusual. I couldn’t live with their style of birding, so I became a loner. It didn’t take too long before I found the whole of the state was a gold mine [for vagrants]. And it wasn’t long before other birders found looking for vagrants was a lot more exciting than going out with some old lady in tennis shoes and gawking at some [common] bird.”
Working as a carpenter during the week and using his car as a combination Land Rover/crash pad on the weekends, McCaskie birded from one end of California to the other, sighting some twenty-five species of birds that had never been known to occur in the state, as well as many others which had been seen only rarely. As a new generation of birders picked up on his dedication and the excitement of his finds, California birding evolved from a genteel diversion into a frenetic search for vagrants. Today looking for vagrants is the main thing that birders in California do, and they measure their own success against that of others by counting their sightings and keeping elaborate lists of them.
McCaskie’s interest in construction grew at the same time as his devotion to birds, and he eventually attended San Diego State College and obtained a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1964. The move to San Diego had dual advantages; aside from getting his degree, McCaskie discovered the county has the highest diversity of birds of any county in North America. In recorded history, 450 different species have been sighted here, and in a single year a good birder can see 350. Most entire states — the whole of Great Britain — do not have such a diversity of bird life. Now contract manager for Trepte Construction Company in Kearny Mesa (which specializes in commercial construction — shopping centers, banks, hospitals, and the like), McCaskie each week spends fifty to sixty hours working in his office and fifty to sixty hours watching, studying, and writing about birds. If a rare bird is sighted anywhere in the state, McCaskie will be contacted almost immediately, and his secretaries at Trepte have strict instructions to get information about sightings to him at once, even if he is in a conference or a meeting with a customer. “There’s an unwritten agreement at Trepte that if a rare bird shows up, I can leave immediately as long as it doesn’t hurt the company,’’ he tells me. “Inevitably, there are conflicts, but I have all the freedom I want. I’ve never considered working for wildlife agencies or as a consultant; if I were in the state department of fish and game, for instance, I couldn’t just drop everything and go out [when a rare bird arrives]. I’m fortunate to work for a company that is willing to put up with my idiosyncracies.’’
He is fortunate to have a wife who puts up with his idiosyncracies. He is described by several friends as “rigidly precise,’’ and Bill Everett, a former member of the Group who spent the better part of four years birding all over California with McCaskie, notes that “the level of his obsession with birds is unbelievable. He’s probably one of the most active birders in the field that there’s ever been. I’d be surprised if he’s ever spent Christmas day — or any holiday at all — with his family. He’s always out birding; that’s why he's the best.”
As we roll down the grade from the In-Ko-Pah Mountains to the Imperial Valley, the first pink glow of dawn appears on the horizon. Near El Centro, a man on a tractor is already at work ploughing a field near the freeway. In the d(m light we are aware of him only because of the tractor’s crazily bouncing lights, and the pale wisp of smoke from its exhaust stack that hangs in the air above him. The sky continues to lighten, and soon we turn north on Highway 111 and drive through deserted El Centro, past doughnut shops, liquor stores, gas stations, and mobile home parks, until we reach the agricultural fields on the outskirts. It is light enough to see now, and our first stop is fast approaching.
Birders do not go to the world’s little paradises to look for birds. They go to sewage ponds and golf courses, garbage dumps and cemeteries, because those are the kinds of places migrating birds are likely to be found. In this case our destination is a small residential section of Brawley, which Webster has suggested checking out. In a few more minutes we have parked in the enclave and are getting out of our cars; McCaskie directs everyone to take separate streets in order to cover the maximum amount of territory in as little time as possible.
We fan out like terrorists in the suburban streets. I decide to stick with Copper. As we make our way past the tract homes with their tidy lawns and driveways, peering into back yards and shrub-lined front porches, she seems to sense my wonderment at the Group’s tactics. “It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to do this sort of thing,’’ she says with a laugh. “Residential areas are good in the winter, just because you’re more likely to have berry bushes and flowering plants’’ that will attract birds.
Copper is a good-looking woman, thirty-seven, with wavy, light-brown hair prematurely (but not unfalteringly) streaked with gray. Her diminutive size — she is only five feet tall and weighs less than a hundred pounds — make her the butt of endless “small” jokes from the other members of the Group. (“What do you do when we have a storm like that one?” McCaskie asked her one morning after a violent windstorm had whipped through the city the day before. “Do you just stay indoors?”) A sophisticated sense of humor and an extremely keen intellect allow her to absorb such jibes good-naturedly.
Copper learned to watch birds from her mother, who would sometimes call her children out to look at birds in the back yard of their home in Washington, D C. Years later, as a teen-ager in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, Copper avoided bird watching temporarily because at that age “there’s a lot of peer pressure on you not to do something that bizarre.” She got back into birding one autumn day in the mid- 1960s, when she. her fiance, and her mother stopped by Orange County’s Upper Newport Bay on the way to an art exhibit in San Diego. The bay was filled with migrating birds, and suddenly Copper wanted to know the names of all the many different species in front of her. “I think all birders — the ones who are fanatic about it — are collectors. Or they have the collector personality,” she told me once. Sighting new birds and keeping track of the sightings is a way of “collecting” them, she explained, not unlike pasting a stamp into a book.
Copper is now' an admitted fanatic about watching birds. In the spring and fall she is out birding every morning from daybreak to early afternoon, driving a circuit that includes bird-rich places such as Point Loma, Batiquitos Lagoon, and the Tia Juana River Valley. In the summer and winter, when fewer birds are around, her birding schedule falls to only three or four days a week. At night she often dreams of birds, birds that have never been sighted in California before, sometimes even “fantasy” birds with beaks or face patterns or wing stripes that can’t possibly exist. She is frequently gone all or most of a weekend chasing some rarity in Los Angeles or Humboldt Bay or Death Valley, and one of the main reasons her marriage has survived is that her husband Bob was himself a member of the Group until 1977. That year he was promoted to deputy chief of the county parks and recreation department, the first in a series of promotions that culminated in his being named director of the department last spring; he no longer has much time to pursue his former hobby. “There’s nothing difficult about coping with birding,” he told me one evening not long ago. He is used to scrounging dinner for himself, and he insisted that he and his wife find time to go to movies and see friends in what is a relatively normal social life. “But Elizabeth sleeps only four hours a night. That may well be a key,” he noted. “When you’re awake for twenty hours a day, you have time to do a lot of things.” “I don’t like to sleep,” agreed Elizabeth, who smokes heavily and recently reduced her intake of coffee from two quarts a day to one and a half. “I hate to waste time.” But she admitted her devotion to birding does at times create awkward situations. One July Fourth a couple of years ago the Coppers had just welcomed several guests to their Coronado home, including Bob’s boss at the parks and recreation department. The plan for the afternoon was to relax over drinks and watch Coronado's Independence Day parade, which was already passing by the Coppers’ house on First Street. The welcoming smiles were still on everyone’s faces when McCaskie called with an urgent message: a curlew sandpiper had been seen at San Elijo Lagoon, near Cardiff. “I wish 1 could say I considered staying home,” Elizabeth said. “There are occasions when I would at least give it a thought .’’But this was not one of them. Curlew sandpipers had never been reported in San Diego County before, and they are almost unheard of elsewhere in California, too. Copper had never seen one in her life.
“I could see what was going to happen,” said Bob, picking up the story. “For an instant I wondered if I should try to prepare the guests for it — you know, tell them, ‘Elizabeth is having a little fit right now. . . .’She went dashing out the door, and backed the car down the driveway in such a way that she convinced the fifty junior majorettes who were marching past the house that she was serious. They scattered like chickens.” During the half-hour drive to Cardiff, Copper was nearly frantic with worry that the sandpiper might have disappeared. “Half of birding is the anticipation,” she explains.
After getting out of the car at the lagoon, it took Copper a few minutes to locate the sandpiper through her binoculars; it was standing behind a flock of other shorebirds. “My heart was racing, my knees were shaking, “she says. “I have these really physical responses to birds.” But the sandpiper “was even more spectacular than I thought. It was in breeding plumage, and they’re very colorful. ...”
“You can’t become good at identifying birds in the field without entering into that state of rabidity,” Bill Everett has said. “You don’t get a feel for [what a particular species looks like] until you’ve seen it yourself. It’s the only way to really learn; there’s no other way to do it.”
In spite of her dedication. Copper has a better perspective on birding than many of the birders she associates with. She knows how peculiar these obsessed intellectuals with binoculars dangling from their necks must look to outsiders, and she often laughs at her own single-mindedness. As we walk down an alley in the Brawley neighborhood, she tells me, “You can get too intense [about birding], and miss some things. When [the Group] goes to Yosemite, for instance, we don't really go to Yosemite, we do Yosemite. And we do it in less than twenty-four hours. and we get all the birds there. ” It doesn’t leave much time for enjoying the scenery; but even Copper wouldn’t take time to look at a view if it meant missing, say, a black-backed three-toed woodpecker.
We pause in the alley, listening to the unearthly moans, whistles, and cries of starlings gathered on a TV antenna not far away. A tiny Costa's hummingbird zooms out of a eucalyptus tree^and hovers in the air six feet away, observing us soundlessly for a few moments before disappearing over the rooftops.
In the same tree Copper spots a female western tanager — a yellowish, robin-size bird that is relatively uncommon in California in the winter — and identifies unseen ruby-crowned kinglets and orange-crowned warblers by their calls. But none of these birds are rare enough to interest her, and soon we return to the car, our noses numb with cold.
Back on Highway 111, we are moving north at about sixty miles an hour when McCaskie sees a big hawk sitting on a wire near the road. “Redshouldered hawk!” he calls out, and as Copper slams on the brakes so we can get a look at it, Oldenettel and Alton narrowly miss plowing into us from behind. Red-shouldered hawks are common in the open woodlands near Ramona and Santa Ysabel, and are found even in the larger canyons of San Diego, but they are highly unusual in the low fields and desert plains of Imperial County. This one — a beautiful adult with brick-red feathers on the breast and a brilliant black-and-white tail — is only the third or fourth one to be seen in this county, according to McCaskie.
We continue on, more mindful that Oldenettel and Alton are still trailing us. McCaskie explains that tracking unusual birds — not just rare ones, but common birds that are sighted far from their normal ranges — is what makes birding attractive to him. The main bird the Group is hoping to see today is a western gull, utterly common along San Diego’s coastline but almost never seen at the Salton Sea. “That’s what keeps bird-watchers going — looking for the unusual,’’ McCaskie says. “They want to see birds where they’re not supposed to be. When I see something a little out of the ordinary, it’s exciting. You gain knowledge, too, but it’s the excitement. . . . Of course, the more knowledgeable you become, the more you appreciate the significance of what you’re seeing.’’
Copper also says “the excitement of the unusual’’ is a strong motivating force for bird-watchers. But so is the competition among them. No one — certainly no one in the Group, anyway — would deny that birders spend a good deal of time trying to see more birds. and rarer ones, than their peers. The primary format for this competition is “listing” — making a list of all the birds you have seen in one place, or in a given period of time — and Southern California birders have a nationwide reputation for being the most competitive listers of all. All birders keep lists of what they have seen in their lifetime, and in North America (Mexican lists are separate); many also keep state lists, county lists, annual lists, monthly lists, back yard lists (birds that have been seen only in one’s back yard), even “shit” lists of birds that have been observed defecating, or those species a birder has seen while relieving himself or herself outdoors. Among the lists kept by the members of the Group are separate lists for every county in Southern California, and they are up to date not only with what birds are on their own lists but which ones are on the others’ lists, too. “You need glaucous gull on your Imperial County list, don’t you, Elizabeth?” McCaskie will ask, and Copper will reply, “No, Richard needs glaucous gull.”
“Right,” Webster will chime in, “Elizabeth got a glaucous gull at Salton City last year.”
In the game of listing, dead birds do not count. I once found a dead MacGillivray’s warbler (a tiny yellow bird with a gray head) on a Fifth Avenue sidewalk near Olive Street in Hillcrest. There wasn’t a mark on it — it was perfect enough to have bounced out of a museum van on the way to an exhibit, although of course it hadn’t — and when I told an expert local birder that it was the first MacGillivray’s warbler I had ever seen, he quickly pointed out I couldn’t include it on my “life list” because it wasn’t alive when I saw it.
“I think all bird-watchers are intense, competitive people,” says Copper. “Lists are a way of making a game out of it. It emphasizes the competitive aspects of birding, but they’re already there anyway. Listing just formalizes the competition, it doesn’t create it."
“There’s a great deal of competition among us,” McCaskie concedes, “but it’s friendly competition. When one of us finds a rare bird, the first thing we do is call the others. If we were really interested in getting ahead of everyone else, we certainly wouldn’t do that.”
The listing craze reached a peak of sorts in 1977, when most of the top birders in California set out to crack the record of 434 species sighted within the state in a single year. It was the closest thing to a “bird off " California birders have ever had, and on the final day of the year, McCaskie caught a glimpse of emperor geese at Tomales Bay (in northern California) to win the race and set a new state record with 446. Copper tied for third place with 441.
Birders are quick to point out that while their mania is a mania, it is at least an educational one. And it is certainly true that by tracking down rare birds, they have vastly extended the scientific knowledge of ranges and migration patterns for birds all over the world. Prior to 1941, for example, the cattle egret, a bird originally from Africa that has successfully colonized much of the world, had never been seen in the United States. But soon after that they were found nesting in Florida, and then began a relentless expansion westward. McCaskie found them along the Colorado River in the mid-1960s, and on March 7,1964, he saw a cattle egret in a field in the Tia Juana River Valley. “There’s no doubt in my mind it was the first individual to arrive in the county,” he says. Today cattle egrets are common on the West Coast.
Similarly, during the winter of 1978, birders discovered a hepatic tanager (a bright-red bird with a thick black bill) in trees on the grounds of the Rosicrucian Fellowship on Mission Boulevard in Oceanside. For five consecutive winters the bird has been sighted in the same grove of trees. “It’s the only hepatic tanager in the state of California,” McCaskie says, and he points out that if a female ever shows up, the two birds could establish a new breeding population.
But Bill Everett, a former member of the Group who now works as a wildlife biologist and ornithological guide, complains that because of birders’ infatuation with rare birds, “we now know more about where vagrants show up than we do about the breeding biology of really common birds. It’s ironic. The brown towhee is a bird that is in everyone’s back yard, but where is the easternmost occurrence of it in San Diego County? No one knows.” It’s regrettable that birders don’t pay more attention to the common species, he says, particularly since “in all the time already spent recreationally in the pursuit of birds, it would take very little to add to our cumulative body of knowledge” about them.
“I haven’t totally given up on listing, but what turned me off to it was the point of diminishing returns,” Everett continues. In the last few years his work has taken him to Africa, Alaska, South America, and the Galapagos Islands, and “the chances of me seeing something in San Diego County that I haven’t already seen somewhere else are pretty damn slim. And if you’re seen ten Nashville warblers, seeing an eleventh is not going to tell you that much. This business about, ‘I saw it here and you didn’t see it here’ — I just think it’s senseless. It’s a game, but it’s a pretty serious one. They sure invest serious time and money in it.”
Copper admits that traveling to places like Point Reyes or Humboldt Bay for one day in order to see some rarity can cost about $200 a trip, but she points out that because there are so few species the members of the Group have not already seen in the state, such trips are necessary for them only once or twice a year. (Because of the dramatic increases in gasoline prices and travel costs in the last decade, it would cost a beginning birder a small fortune today to construct a state list as long as hers or McCaskie’s.)
But Copper insists that for herself and most other top birders, listing a bird is less important than learning what it looks like, or getting the unique high that comes when you finally get a look at a species you have never seen before. Even Everett describes seeing a new bird as “a shot in the arm; it’s a big rush.”
I have known that rush myself, creeping around on my hands and knees beneath a bush on Point Loma and surprising an American redstart, an uncommon visitor to San Diego that 1 had never seen before. And I can still picture the first two California condors I ever saw, a pair of adults soaring together high above dry hills in the Los Padres National Forest. There are less than thirty California condors left in the world, and they are probably doomed to extinction despite the concentrated effort currently under way to save them; the state very likely does not have enough suitable range-land left to accommodate the habits of these huge, far-ranging scavengers. A hot wind was blowing out of the San Joaquin Valley in the distance, and my heart was pounding as I watched the two giants minute after minute, circling in perfect unison as they rose higher and higher into the air: an aerial duet for the end of the universe.
In the middle of the day, the Group breaks for lunch. In rapid succession we have already visited Finney Lake (where we saw the laughing gulls), a couple of desolate, plowed fields northeast of Calipatria (where the Group searched in vain for a lapland longspur, a sparrowlike bird), and the Red Hill marina at the southern end of the Salton Sea (where we saw a few “good” birds but somehow missed the flocks of snow geese that were supposed to be there). Our latest stop, an anonymous farmhouse along Highway 86 where McCaskie sighted a rare magnolia warbler last week, also ends in failure; after twenty minutes of scanning the eucalpytus trees that surround the house, we have to face the grim fact that the bird is no longer here. Looking discouraged, McCaskie directs Copper to drive into nearby Westmorland, where there is a cafe of sorts.
Westmorland is a dreary little truck stop of a town; it’s not quite at the end of the earth, but if that’s where you’re headed, you’ll pass Westmorland on the way. As we pull up in Copper’s dusty Volvo, we marvel at the stark-looking feed stores, gas stations, and industrial compounds that line the main street. “You think to yourself, ‘All right, this is the light industrial section,’ ” Webster comments. “But the whole town looks like this!”
We extricate ourselves from the cars and stroll into the Gate Way Cafe — all except Webster, that is, who has brought a sandwich, apples, and a thermos full of tea, and decides to spend the next thirty minutes looking for birds in the town's few trees. The cafe is devoid of customers, but the cook and the waitress, a couple of middle-aged hens, are sitting together at a booth. The waitress is filing her nails, and the cook is reading a romantic novel. As we sit down. Copper gleefully points out the paintings on the walls, which depict huge trucks rolling across gaudy landscapes, and which are for sale ($39.95 each, or ten dollars more with an electric clock in the comer).
The Group is notable for its lack of discrimination in eateries, which is at least partly due to McCaskie’s insistence on maximum convenience in order to accommodate maximum birding. However, friends say that McCaskie also has a rather narrow range of preferred cuisines — Italian, Mexican, and Chinese restaurants almost never meet with his favor. The result is that the Group’s other members usually defer to McCaskie’s concept of food, which is much like a migrating warbler’s: it is simply fuel to be restocked in order to get on to the next place. I note that the two most costly items on the menu of the Gate Way Cafe, the hamburger steak and the fried chicken dinners ($5.95), are served with salad and Jell-O. We eat. After a while Webster joins us and finishes off the French fries that came with McCaskie’s hamburger.
At twenty-seven, Webster is the youngest member of the Group, but he has been birding steadily since age nine and is already considered one of the top four or Five birders in the state. Harvard-educated and from a well-to-do Santa Barbara family, he has a way of choosing his words so carefully and enunciating them so precisely that when he is engaged in even casual conversation it often sounds as if he is making a speech. He worked as an accountant for the Internal Revenue Service in Oxnard for eighteen months before moving to San Diego in August of 1981, and is currently living off his savings and “pretending to write a novel. I’m a nascent novelist,” he says.
Webster is the most independent member of the Group, and avoids the roadside restaurants whenever he can by bringing his own food and soft drinks. He birds by himself more often than not. “Some of the other birders around prefer to bird with other people,” he told me once, “but I am very content to bird by myself. I do not need other people around. I Find at times that the Group is noisy — and what with all the yammering going on, the level of birding goes down. It frequently just drives me up the wall.” But Webster does concede that when it comes to “distance birding,” the Group offers the advantages of splitting driving and driving costs, and he works at staying in touch with the others the way most members of the Group do. Each night prior to a serious day’s birding ends with a small flurry of phone calls among members of the Group: Webster will call McCaskie, McCaskie will call Copper, and Copper will call Oldenettel, in order to determine what birds are around, who will be going where, what time they will be leaving, and so on. It is a tight little network that connects with other such networks in other cities in California, forming a birders’ grapevine that can relay information astonishingly fast. When a Baird’s sparrow was sighted on Point Loma last October (only the second record for the species in the state), McCaskie, Copper, and Webster saw the bird the same day it was discovered. By the following day nearly one hundred other birders from all over California had gathered to look at it, too. Some had been contacted by members of the Group, and these few had then alerted their friends, who in turn phoned up others, et cetera. (Recently this network was supplemented by the addition of a birders’ hotline, a recorded telephone message coordinated by Copper that reports the latest and rarest finds in the area.)
Another time, McCaskie had traveled to Parker, Arizona to take part in a Christmas count (an annual census of all the birds in a particular area). While he was gone a skylark was sighted for the first time in California on Point Reyes. Webster was notified of the find by birders from northern California on the evening of December 17, and realized McCaskie would want to know immediately. Recalling the name of a rancher, Sue Clark, who lives near Parker and who would probably be taking part in the Parker Christmas count, Webster called her that same evening and told her to relay a message to McCaskie the next day. McCaskie spent all day December 18 birding on the Christmas count, but when the participants gathered that evening at a coffee shop in Parker to compile their sightings, Clark told him about the skylark. After making a phone call to verify the bird was still there, McCaskie jumped into his car, drove all night to San Diego, boarded a jet the following morning at 8:00, and was on Point Reyes before noon on December 19, looking at the bird. “You can’t mess around,” he explains with a shrug.
We leave the Gate Way Cafe, and at McCaskie’s direction return to the Red Hill marina on the Salton Sea.
The day’s birding has not been going well, and McCaskie wants to see if we can pick up the snow geese and any other birds we might have missed. As we near the sea he finally sights the geese, but the flock is in the air and so distant that no one else sees it at first. When Copper inquires where he is looking, McCaskie tells her, “Just look beyond the dead cormorant.” Sure enough, there is a dead cormorant hanging grotesquely in a barren tree in front of us, and the snow geese can be seen above it, white specks in an expanse of blue.
Putting down his binoculars, McCaskie remarks that the dead bird has been in the tree for months, and that there used to be a nest of young cormorants just below it. The nestlings would look up at the carcass as if they couldn’t quite figure out what it was. He says this with a barely suppressed smile, and there are immediately jokes from the rest of us about the young cormorants wondering aloud, “What ever happened to Daddy?” Most birders have a bizarre but well-developed sense of humor; it is a way of lightening the tension of their intense pursuit, and dealing with its occasional boredom. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery on Point Loma is one of the best places in California to look for migrating birds, but on slow days there, birders have been known to take turns running along the tops of the gravestones (conveniently arranged in rows) to see who can maintain his balance the longest.
We continue on past the marina, and park on a spit of earth that leads out into the water. Barren islands and bleached, dead trees rise abruptly out of the shallows in front of us, and in the distance a layer of gray mist lies on the mirrorlike blue surface of the sea. The scene is surrealistic in the extreme, and made more so by the thousands of egrets, sandpipers* ducks, gulls, and other birds that have gathered here in flocks of all sizes. But none of the birds elicits a verbal reaction from the Group until Oldenettel, who has dragged a telescope out of his Volkswagen and set it up, cries out, “There’s a parasitic jaeger!” McCaskie whirls, muttering a hoarse, “Oh, shit!” when he fails to sight the bird through his binoculars. For a moment the jaeger seems to have vanished into thin air, but soon it is resighted, standing on a beach a few hundred yards away.
Oldenettel is the quietest member of the Group; at forty, he took up birding in earnest only three years ago, and he told me later that he is often reluctant to identify birds when he is out with the others because he has mis-identified too many species in the past. “Your rank [among birders] depends on how good you are at identifying birds; if you screw up the identification of a good one, you automatically slip a little in everyone’s eyes,” he said. But he has called the jaeger correctly; a predator (it looks something like a big, dark, mean gull) that is usually found on the open ocean, the jaeger is probably the most unusual bird we have seen all day. But it is not unusual enough to cause McCaskie to jump up and down, as he sometimes does, or hug his fellow birders in a congratulatory embrace. After a few minutes he suggests we leave for Salton City to look for the western gull, which is the main bird the Group wants to see anyway. McCaskie observed one recently at Salton City, thereby adding it to his Imperial County list, but Copper, Webster, and Oldenettel do not have it on theirs and are eager to catch up.
On the way to Salton City, Webster and McCaskie both fall asleep for the first time all day. It is almost three in the afternoon and we have been birding and driving, birding and driving, for nearly twelve hours. Copper, still doing yeomanlike duty at the wheel of her Volvo, manages to stay awake for this forty-five-mile stretch as well, and soon we are pulling onto the sandy shore of the sea again, about midway up its western side.
Dead fish in every state of decay litter the beach in front of us, and the odor is almost overpowering. But the Group braves the stench; slowly, methodically, they examine every single gull that is bobbing in the water near shore or sitting on a row of half-submerged posts farther out. The many species of gulls are notoriously hard to tell apart, and the yellow-footed and juvenile herring gulls, in particular, look so similar to western gulls that only an expert can tell them apart. To McCaskie’s surprise, the western gull he saw here a week ago seems to have left, and after a few minutes we drive south a quarter mile or so to another beach. But the gull is not there, either, and we drive to still another beach. You can almost hear the enthusiasm draining out of the Group as they scan gull after gull, looking for just the right combination of size, leg color, plumage. . . .
In the end, we have to admit defeat. There is no western gull at Salton City today. The Group’s members face their fate with the wan smiles of revolutionaries before a firing squad, but in the car on the long drive to Lake Henshaw via Borrego Springs, the gloom of the unseen western gull permeates the car. Jokingly, I tell Copper to make up the sighting. Seriously, she tells me that some birders actually would. “It’s a measure of how intense birding can be that some people really do make up birds they’ve seen,” she says. Such fakes are few; about seventy-five percent of all rare birds are seen by more than one birder, according to McCaskie, and someone with a high number of unusual individual sightings would be bound to raise suspicion. Webster explains that he has been by himself several times when he has discovered birds so rare that he has literally run to the nearest telephone to call someone who can come out and verify the sighting. “Verification removes all doubt. So you return to the bird and watch the bird, and you get so nervous that pretty soon you start to hate the little son of a bitch. But when someone shows up who can verify it, then you can relax. Then you can enjoy it.’’
We drive on and on, but for the rest of the day, nothing can quite alleviate the Group’s collective anguish over having missed the western gull at Salton City — not a beautiful ferruginous hawk we see on a fence post near the highway, nor even the sight of wispy clouds, glowing pink in the sunset, reflected in the icy blue waters of Lake Henshaw. But the next day, like a gift from heaven, a king eider dropped out of the sky and into the swells at the end of the Imperial Beach Pier. It was the first time an adult male king eider (a duck from the arctic) had ever been seen anywhere in California, and McCaskie, Copper, Webster, and Oldenettel were all down looking at it that first day, of course. The following evening I met Copper at the base of the pier, and she informed me that the eider had apparently left already, gone to some unknown destination. Since she had already had a good look at it, I asked her if she felt temporarily at peace, and she laughed. “Yes, I feel temporarily at peace,’’ she said. “But it never lasts long, that’s the problem.”