Richard Ingles of Santa Clara awoke before 5 a.m. Saturday so he could make the two-hour drive to Galt for the city's Winter Bird Festival.
"A bird with a bug that's a beautiful story," he said, describing a perfect photo opportunity.
Ingles had on his shoulder at least $4,000 worth of photography equipment during a three-hour bird-watching tour Saturday morning. But the retired airplane pilot didn't seem to mind the extra heft.
"Bird-watching gets you outdoors. It's good for the body and good for the mind," he said.
The festival, a day of informational sessions and tours of the Cosumnes River Preserve, drew hundreds of participants.
The 46,000-acre preserve is home to about 100,000 birds, according to naturalists who count birds there every two weeks. About 17,000 snow geese were spotted during the last count. The population fluctuates greatly, however, depending on the season.
"Anytime we get rain, there'll be less birds (in the preserve) since there are more bodies of water around," said Harry McQuillen, preserve manager.
Counting the birds is not easy. Several groups of naturalists venture out to ensure that the creatures aren't counted more than once.
"You learn to look at a small flock and guess how many birds are in it," preserve naturalist Ann Burris said.
For nature lover Renis Harvey, the best thing about bird-watching is when "something spooks the birds."
"When they start flying, that's when you get the good photos," he said.
Harvey tugged along even more equipment than Ingles. The ultra-magnified lens he was using weighed 40 pounds and cost $20,000.
Saturday's frosty weather didn't stop shorebirds such as the Western sandpiper from piercing the wet soil with their beaks, looking for breakfast.
"With a 4-inch bill, you go deeper than a 1-inch bill," McQuillen said. "Everyone has their own niche going after invertebrates."
In California, the best time to view birds is in November, Burris said. The migratory birds typically make their way to Alaska and Canada by late spring.
Ingles, who has flown as far as Morocco and Iceland for nature photography, said he is driven by the idea of preserving animals for "posterity."
"Maybe this species isn't going to be around in the next 10 years," he said. "All we'll have will be photos."
Still, amateurs such as Katy Globus proved it's possible to enjoy bird-watching without the heavy equipment or the jargon.
"You've got to love the sound the wings make," the 54-year-old Sacramento resident said, pointing to a flock of shorebirds.