Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Birth of a Fogey

All my life, I have fought the urge to bird. Sure, birds are intriguing and fun to watch. And listening to them on a spring morning is better than getting free box tickets at the Hollywood Bowl.

But...birding is for old people. REALLY old people. Everyone knows that if you can tell more than 3 sparrows apart, you probably can't remember where your car keys are—that is, if your grandchildren still let you drive.

I wasn't going to be one of those people—at least not for another 40 years or so, thank you very much. Then, and only then, would I allow myself be seen in public with binoculars around my neck.

Then I started training for the first Orange County Marathon —and my resolve was broken.

My increasingly long training runs took me into Fairview Park in Costa Mesa, though the adjoining Talbert Nature Reserve , and down the bike trail along the Santa Ana river to Huntington Beach (or inland, to the 405 Freeway, after which the scenery became dull and industrial). I set some rules for myself: do not stop running unless (1) you're in in near-death levels of pain, or (2) safety requires it (that is, if a truck crosses my path or something), or (3) if something really, really cool shows up.

And those really, really cool things invariably turned out to be birds. Like my very first sighting of Black Skimmer (my thought at the time: What the hell is THAT??), and the adult Bald Eagle, in full white-headed plumage, who landed calmly on a telephone pole right in front of me—in the middle of one of California's most boring and homogenized suburbs. Or those three brilliant red birds, accompanied by a couple of brown ones of the same size, who mysteriously appeared on the chain-link fence lining the trail then disappeared seconds later. (I'm now pretty sure they were Summer Tanagers—either that, or I was more dehydrated than I thought and was hallucinating.)

Soon I started looking for birds even when I wasn't running. Then weekend trips to the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and Bolsa Chica began to replace my usual weekend forays to South Coast Plaza. I dragged my husband along for company, and he began bringing along a camera. Then he got an even bigger camera. Then another.

Now there was no denying it. We were birders. Just like all those really, really old people—who, despite their thick bifocals and hearing aids, often have the mysterious power to discern fieldmarks on flying sparrows a football field away and to identify calls of vagrant warblers over the din of sirens and screaming children. This power, they always explain with Yoda-like equanimity, comes from years of practice and experience.

Getting old may not be so horrible after all.

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