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February 2, 2023


The Eagles have landed
There are nine of us gathered near the side of Airline Highway,
just a few minutes south of Hollister. The day is mild under a gray
ceiling of overcast. The six youngsters charge around, joyfully
expending their abundant energy.
There are nine of us gathered near the side of Airline Highway, just a few minutes south of Hollister. The day is mild under a gray ceiling of overcast. The six youngsters charge around, joyfully expending their abundant energy.

Across the lake I see what I’m looking for. Sharply etched against the inky dark green of a live oak tree is a dark smudge, set off by a brilliant white spot. I swing the spotting scope to bear and twist the focus, and there it is, centered in the magic circular window of the scope — a Bald Eagle.

“Here it is,” I announce, and the scene is transformed. Immediately the kids charge over, eagerly taking turns at the scope. The adults take their turns, too, as the children try to find in their binoculars what they see in the scope.

A few minutes later, I spot the other one, even closer, and capture it in the scope as it sits on its perch atop a power line. Then one of the children shouts, “Roadrunner!” Sure enough, there’s a Greater Roadrunner dashing through the brushy growth. Soon another appears.

The simple presence of these two relatively uncommon species galvanizes the group. Conversation quickens. There’s palpable excitement.

This time, it was last Saturday at Paicines Reservoir. I’d taken the group because a pair of Bald Eagles has returned to spend the winter there, and their reliable presence makes them easy to spot but no less spectacular for their predictability.

I’ve seen it countless times in countless places. “Birdwatcher” or no, there’s something about wild birds that enchants most people. More than 70 million Americans call themselves birdwatchers, although “birder” is the more favored term among those who remember when “birdwatcher” produced images of old ladies in mismatched argyle socks and misshapen hand-knit sweaters.

What is it about birds that fascinates humans? I asked the children in the group Saturday, and their answers mirrored those I’ve been able to divine in the years I’ve been considering this question.

Flight. Birds fly. Watching something spring into the air and scissor its way across the sky with powerful wing beats is inspiring. From the impossible aerobatics of hummingbirds to the purposeful power of a falcon, humankind has always looked to birds and wondered. After watching them from our own perspective, rooted to the earth, it’s been less than 100 years since we began our own poor imitation of their flight with our own aircraft.

Color. The roadrunners were hardly spectacular at first blush, nothing like the boldly contrasting white heads and tails against the powerful, burnished bodies of the Bald Eagles. But a closer look revealed a glossy black cap, individual feathers edged in caramel browns and breasts spattered with grays and blacks. If a human could sport a similar outfit, we’d call him gaudy. Every color is found in the feathers of birds, sometimes in shocking combination. But the artfulness of these combinations is always present. It’s been said that a bluebird carries the sky on its back, but even that beautiful string of words is inadequate to describe the luminous iridescence of its blue.

Song. Birds announce their presence like no other wild animal. I once heard what I believe was a wild cougar scream, and the memory of that sound will never leave me. But no one would call that musical. As we watched the roadrunners and eagles, a tiny brown bird called to us from some coyote bush across Airline Highway. It was a Bewick’s Wren, a common resident of our area with an uncommonly beautiful repertoire of songs.

Conversation stopped in mid-sentence as children and adults tried to find the cryptically colored bird with the diva’s voice.

Variety. No matter where you go, from the penguins of Antarctica to the fabulous riot of birds in the rain forest, birds are there, in impossible variety. Some stand taller than a man, and others weigh less than a penny. They eat seeds, garbage, fruit and each other. They’re red, yellow, black, blue, purple. They’re loud and exuberant and quiet and skulking.

Ease of observation. Simply put, birds present themselves to us with astonishing generosity. Wildlife fascinates us. But we can spend our lives in the woods and never see a marten or a cougar unless we are very fortunate. A look out our window, or a trip to the nearest schoolyard turns up birds in abundance. They are so omnipresent that their rare absence is more likely to elicit comment than their presence.

Discovery. The hunter knows the thrill of knowing an animal so intimately that he can approach it. So does the person who captures prey only in a photo or memory. Moreover, the observation of wildlife behavior is a relatively recent phenomenon, and significant contributions to our shared understanding of bird life are being made by casual bird-watchers all the time. The opportunities to participate in citizen science are abundant.

Sharing a landscape with those eagles and roadrunners on Saturday didn’t change any lives, certainly. But eventually, the knowledge that we share our landscape with animals of such stunning grace and beauty may.

Best bet

The San Benito County Water District’s Paicines Reservoir is filling, and filled, with waterfowl. The reservoir is just west of Airline Highway (Highway 25) just south of the Paicines General Store, which is at the intersection of Airline Highway and Panoche Road. There’s a large pullout that allows safe parking. The reservoir is on private property, so please respect the owners and the wildlife by staying outside the fences. The Bald Eagles can usually be found across the reservoir from the fence. Check power poles and the scattered oaks.

While the abundant water of this El Nino year has scattered ducks widely, the reservoir continues to be a great place to sort through a tremendous variety of waterfowl, and the comfortable perch above the reservoir gives viewers the chance to sort through them at leisure. Pack a lunch and pack your binoculars.

Mark Paxton
A staff member edited this provided article.

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