When some people think of bird-watching, they think of binocular-wielding retirees in socks and sandals – not high school freshmen.
But naturalist Cliff Hawley was 14 when a bird first sparked his interest.
“I walked out of my parents’ house the day after Christmas, and on the fence of the vegetable garden, there was a beautiful vermilion flycatcher,” he said. “It was just incredible. It was just gorgeous. It got me totally hooked on birds.”
Hawley, who is still hooked on birds 25 years later, will lead a walking bird tour Saturday at Soil Born Farms. He said he always hopes that he’ll help participants find their very own “spark birds.”
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The tour takes place along the American River Ranch, which offers around 60 areas of organic fields, orchards and pastures. Though there is a tour offered nearly every month, the birds change depending on the time of year. For this tour in particular, Hawley expects to see many baby birds, as well as resident species such as the lesser goldfinch and the great egret.
California has the greatest variety of bird species in the United States – 664 total, according to the California Bird Records Committee. Sacramento’s position along the Pacific flyway and proximity to two rivers and the Sierra Nevada make it a hot spot. At Soil Born Farms alone, 92 species have been spotted. On a trip led by Hawley, one can expect to see between 40 and 50.
“It’s cool because you’ll see birds in plumages you won’t see for the rest of the year,” Hawley said. “Robins have this spotted breast in July that people aren’t used to. There are a lot of identification challenges.”
With Hawley on site, there is a good chance you’ll see every bird around. He carries a power spotting scope that gives people detailed looks at faraway feathered creatures.
Hawley, 39 especially enjoys the reaction of tour attendees – from parents with children to older people birding for the first time.
“I just love when people come on the tours interested in nature and see something that makes them excited,” he said. “Their eyes light up and they say, ‘now I know why you love birds.’”
He hopes that trips like this make people more aware of their surroundings and the beauty around them. Though Hawley can’t always be out in the fields watching birds, his experience has made him appreciate some everyday birding sights.
“The great part about birding is there are birds everywhere,” he said. “When I was commuting, I saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker right by a light rail station. Sometimes they get lost and end up West.”
And if you find that you like bird-watching, Sacramento is a great place to do it, Hawley said. You can’t beat the American River Parkway for diversity, but the Yolo bike paths have tons of ducks, shorebirds and black skimmers.
Apps and Facebook groups make bird identification easier, as does a field guide for the decidedly old school. Participants of ebird.com, a popular birding site, report millions of bird observations each month.
Even as time passes and identification techniques change, Hawley never gets tired of birds.
“I’ve been birding 20 years,” Hawley said. “There are still things that excite me.”
Walking bird tour Saturday at Soil Born Farms
8:00 a.m. - 10:00 a.m.
Price: $8 (proceeds support the American River Ranch Restoration & Development Fund)
Location: American River Ranch, 2140 Chase Drive, Rancho Cordova, CA 95670. Meet at Oak Shelter.
To buy tickets: soilborn.org/events/bird-walk-7-15-17/