Flocking Together

I have always taken birds for granted. They all looked pretty much the same to me as I was growing up. My grandmother once had a canary, but except for being very colorful, it seemed just like an ordinary bird. Of course, some birds were big than others. In the Midwest there were pheasants in fall. Chickens and turkeys were so domesticated they didn’t really seem like birds at all. On vacations I sometimes saw birds that were unique. They were either in zoos or near oceans. Pelicans and egrets come to mind.

So I was little prepared for the extreme birding I found when I started working for YSI. Early on I learned of a trip a few folks were planning to Marin County. The intent was to see birds, especially hawks, sailing on the updrafts created by the Golden Gate in the stark and beautiful headlands of Marin just above and beyond the Bridge. Thinking this would be a good opportunity to learn a little, I joined the group. I was prepared to walk and talk, look at birds casually, eat lunch, and have a good time with good company.

We arrived at a spot high above the Gate that could only be accessed through prior arrangement. The rest of the crew broke out binoculars that they used as easily as I use the spectacles perched on my nose. They scanned the skies. One of them unloaded a chalkboard on which was written the names of several species of hawk. To me a hawk was a hawk, and I was lucky to know that.

They spotted hawks all right. And they knew their names. Soon they were gleefully tallying their “prey” on the chalkboard. There was good-natured banter as the group tried to keep from counting the same bird twice and tried to identify some of the trickier ones as they soared hundreds of feet above.

An hour passed, and another. I had been discovered as an interloper early on. While this sport continued, I sat on a bench conveniently placed so it looked out to sea and across the strait. It was early afternoon.

Suddenly ships came into sight–many ships. They formed a line steaming straight for the Gate. There passing beneath me were sailing ships from the pages of history books, gray navy ships conjured up in World War II, ships of all shapes and sizes. It was Fleet Week and I had the prize grandstand seat.

As the afternoon wore on, the avian specialists yearned to pursue their sport farther up the peninsula. A spot known to some as a keen one was our destination, and we loaded up to seek it out. What they had not considered was Fleet Week. Traffic was pouring into the City. In order to head the opposite direction, we needed first to cross it. This proved difficult–no, impossible.

We found ourselves in Sausalito, unable to get out. There was nothing to do but stop. We could not go north, and we certainly would get nowhere going south. We ended up on the water’s edge just north of the Bridge. Sitting on the bulkhead, our feet dangling over the Bay, we settled in just as the Blue Angels arrived flying a few feet above the water directly in front of us–under the Bridge.

Now this was some kind of extreme bird watching!

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