Falling for birds
Jim Woods’ Birding Under Nevada Skies gets down to the basics of life
On a crisp fall morning at Oxbow Nature Study Area, Jim Woods is looking into the trees. Specifically, at the slight movement he sees around their limbs, movements that indicate any number of things he’s interested in. Like a yellow lesser goldfinch, or a flicker or a warbler. Sometimes his eyes drift upward, allowing him to spot five sandhill cranes flying south for winter.
Recently retired from construction engineering, Woods started a recreational birding business, Birding Under Nevada Skies, about a month ago. Though his main birding love is raptors, he also leads groups and individuals to riparian, sagebrush and woodland areas around Northern Nevada. He’s gained some practice leading tours during the annual Eagles and Agriculture festival in Carson Valley, the Spring Wings event in Fallon and as a former scout leader given to taking the troops on birding expeditions.
“It’s just something I’ve always liked,” he says. “You can’t really go deer or coyote watching. Bird watching is the easiest way to enjoy wildlife. If you like the outdoors at all, birding’s the thing for you. They’re always around.”
Birds are around more at certain times of the year, however, and autumn is one of them due to the fall migration.
As birds make the arduous trip south toward Mexico, they also experience what Woods calls the “autumnal effect.” In the spring, the birds’ exposure to sunlight is their cue to find a mate. The same thing happens in the fall, except darker hours creep in before mating occurs. The birds are tricked, in a way—showing off their bolder colors, vocals and dance moves, but without getting the girl. Woods says this false start helps birds to bond, however, before they make the long, difficult journey south together. “Migration is a stressful time, and bonding really helps with that,” he says.
A robin sings from a tree branch above the Truckee River. He’s closely followed by another male robin, who chases him away.
“It’s all about this autumnal effect that takes place,” says Woods. “They’re getting all lit up again. Easy boys, easy.”
There are a surprising number of birds to be seen at Oxbow, and they change with the scenery. An area with tall trees and a lush understory is full of tiny goldfinches, a red-cheeked flicker with a black-and-white spotted chest and mourning doves. A gang of magpies moves imposingly from tree to tree. A scrub jay takes off from a high branch. Mallard ducks quack along the river, and a pond with a field of cattails holds the song of a marsh wren.
“Conservation gets caught up with too many radical ideas,” says Woods. “This is all you really want to do. Set aside something like Oxbow; this feeds a lot of birds. If you do it right, this is the way to go. And what are you tying up? Ten to 15 acres? I’d like a wildlife preserve with thousands of acres, too, but it’s hard to get.”
A habitat such as this, where the birds can mate, feed, rest and leave to come again, begins to take on more meaning as one learns more about the life it hosts.
Woods points out a bird that shows its impressive redheaded color only when trying to attract a mate. “It’s all about falling in love,” he says. “Falling in love and having kids.”