Flying high in birdland

You don’t have to be weird to like watching birds

For the birds: At least 322 different species of birds can be found in Butte County at different times of the year. To get involved with birding around Chico, visit the Altacal Audubon Society’s Web site at or call society President Richard Redmond at 893-5382

Phil Johnson is driving his 1958 GMC truck down Chico River Road when he spots a bird perched on a telephone wire. He stops the truck, causing a puppy that has been lounging on the seat next to him to awaken with a jolt.

“Did you see it?” Johnson asks, pointing somewhere behind him. “That’s a shrike.”

He backs up for a closer look and, idling the truck, gets out his binoculars. “Loggerhead shrike.”

Scanning the bushes, he spots another. “See that one? Over there. In the trees.”

Way off in the distance, a blurry yellow figure blends in with the foliage of an almond tree. A look through the binoculars reveals a tiny, tropical-looking bird, either unaware or unbothered by our presence on the highway.

“American goldfinch,” Johnson says, dropping his binoculars and putting the truck in gear. Johnson doesn’t bother to reach for his checklist. He’s seen this one before.

To experienced Butte County birders like Johnson, it’s no big deal to spot a red-tailed hawk or Western wood peewee this time of year. But to the uninitiated, it can be quite impressive. The abundance of bird life in this area is borne out by the fact that, in a little over three hours, Johnson has just identified 33 different species of birds and has only strayed a few miles outside the Chico city limits.

DUCKS IN THE SOUP A few ducks float around in an oxidation pond near Chico’s water treatment plant, which is a good—though sometimes smelly—place to see a variety of birds.

Photo by Tom Angel

For people who like birds, the spotting never stops. A walk through the park, a wait at a stoplight—it doesn’t matter. There are birds all over the place just waiting to be identified. And while most of Butte County’s birding goes on in the wintertime, early summer is also one of the best times to catch glimpses of both the stragglers from the northern migration and the early arrivals from the tropics.

It’s impossible to say how many birders there are around Chico, as some are very low-key about their pastime. In fact, a lot of people probably think birders are a pretty weird bunch. It’s true that they like to tramp through the woods with battered optical equipment and well-thumbed field guides searching tirelessly for little flying things with funny names like bushtit and rufous-sided towhee. And it’s equally true that they take pleasure in making “life lists” detailing all the different kinds of birds they’ve ever seen.

But it doesn’t seem so weird when you actually go birding. In fact, it’s a lot of fun. Who would have thought that you could see whole flocks of American white pelicans—which boast one of the largest wingspans of any bird on the West Coast—in the oxidation ponds near Chico’s sewage treatment plant? And who wouldn’t be impressed by the majestic sight of an osprey gliding over the Sacramento River with a big, thrashing fish in its talons?

Chico’s proximity to nature and location along the migratory paths of many bird species make it a great place to develop a taste for bird watching. All you need is a field guide, which you can get used for about $10, and a checklist, which you can pick up at the Chico Creek Nature Center. Eventually you’ll want binoculars, but one of the best places to start birding, Johnson said, is in the comfort of your own home.

BIRD CHECK Phil Johnson consults his field guide so he can properly identify a bird he has just seen.

Photo by Tom Angel

“The field guide is the most important thing,” he said. “Get a field guide and learn what’s out there first. Otherwise you’ll be out in the field and see a little bird and be leafing through your field guide for a half an hour.”

Take it from a beginner, Johnson’s right. Birds rarely sit around waiting to be identified. By the time you’ve found something in the book that sort of resembles the bird you were just looking at, you look up again and that bird is long gone, and a new one has come into view. That’s why Johnson suggests getting a checklist—which shows which birds are commonly seen during each season in the area—and do some practice birding before heading outside. And another note of caution: That bird you just saw fly away that you’re pretty sure is a rare flammulated owl? Better just forget about it. Unless you’ve been birding for many, many years, no self-respecting birder is going to believe you.

The best thing by far for beginning birders to do is to find someone who knows birds and get them to take you out to a few spots. The oxidation ponds on West River Road attract an almost unfathomable number of birds, some of them nesting, others mating, still others just making a pit stop. The Sacramento River is similarly teeming with feathery creatures, as are the area’s rice ponds, the Sierra foothills and the hills around Lake Oroville. Don’t discount Bidwell Park either. Many a rare bird has been spotted in the park, proving that the most uncommon sightings generally happen in the most uncommon places. It may not be scientific, but this is probably due to the fact that the more rare the bird being sighted, the more hopelessly lost it is.

PICKY PELICANS A flock of American white pelicans search for food among the reeds in the oxidation pond.

Photo by Tom Angel

If you just want to be a casual birder, you don’t have to go any farther than your back yard. Store-bought bird feeders are the perfect solution for any would-be birders who are too busy (or just too lazy) to go out in the field. Johnson suggests getting a couple of different feeders and filling each of them up with a different bird food. Wild birdseed, black sunflower seeds and thistle seeds are all good, and you can usually buy them at your local pet store.

Another option for the novice birder is to get involved with the Altacal Audubon Society. Formerly headquartered at the Chico Creek Nature Center in Bidwell Park, Altacal sponsors several guided birding trips a year and keeps up a Web site, information center and interactive exhibits on all kinds of wildlife.

So what are you waiting for? Heed the call of the pygmy nuthatch! Sing along with the California thrasher! And don’t forget to cross that rock dove off your life list.

Virtual vacationing