IF THE THOUGHT of peering through binoculars at yellow- billed magpies or warbling vireos sounds as exciting as reading the dictionary, consider this: at a recent Marin Audubon Society field trip to the Las Gallinas wildlife ponds, a midair battle between t wo red-tailed hawks
rivaled any Messerschmitt-Spitfire dogfight you might catch
on the History Channel.
Roughly 25 birders — it’s so 19th century to call them
bird-watchers — were walking along the trails of the wildlife area when guide Susan Kelly spotted a red-tailed hawk
flushing out a flock of meadowlarks. “Good spotting, Susan!”
her fellow guide, Len Blumin, exclaimed. The hawk, after
thoroughly frightening the smaller birds, settled on the
rungs of an electrical tower, 20 feet above the ground. It was
soon joined by another equally kind-hearted raptor.
Before long, the two hawks had so irritated one another
that they were engaged in a midair battle, wings engaged
and flapping, going after one another as they fumbled to the
ground. When they finally landed with a plunk within the
tower’s confines, one hawk began attacking the other, trying
to peck it to death, it seemed. As the hawk lay nearly lifeless,
the assembled birders pondered whether they should call Fish
and Wildlife to step in. But while they discussed the dilemma,
the bird suddenly rose up, flapped its wings and flew away.
The episode was wild and dramatic, and a perfect example
of the fleeting pleasure of birding: look quickly because the
object of your fascination will soon fly away.
As fleeting as the pleasure can be — or perhaps because
it is fleeting — more and more Americans are embracing
birding, which is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the country. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife
survey, there’s been a 9 percent increase in the people
who observe wildlife (most of them birders) from 2001
to 2011. Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding
Association, says he’s seen his membership grow by almost
10 percent in the past four years. The only problem, he
says, “is that no one can quite agree what the definition of
a birder is.” It could be the person who hangs a bird feeder
in her backyard or the retiree who travels the world in the
hopes of spotting rare plumage.