Winter in the Sacramento area, for many people, is not the time for outdoor recreation. But if you like looking at birds, there’s no better season.
The Central Valley explodes with bird life in winter, because it is an important stop on the Pacific Flyway, a major avian migration route. Millions of birds travel the flyway to spend the winter here. They’re drawn to the food and protection offered by thousands of acres of dormant farm fields, flooded wetlands and wildlife refuge areas.
“It’s almost overwhelming for the number of birds,” said Ed Harper, an authority on the area’s birds and a board member of Western Field Ornithologists. “We get some of the highest counts in the nation for birds during the (Audubon Society) Christmas bird counts.”
After retiring as a math teacher at American River College, Harper launched a birding travel business, Sandpiper Journeys. He takes people to exotic locations all over the world to look at birds. But he always looks forward to coming home, because there is so much bird life here.
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He also hosts visitors from other parts of the world who want to look at the Sacramento area’s birds. Often the birds they want to spot are fairly common to locals.
One example is the yellow-billed magpie, a species that lives only in California. The bird is a fairly common sight along the American River and even in some of Sacramento’s city parks.
“I’ve had people come in from Australia saying, ‘Can you show me a yellow-billed magpie?’ ” said Harper, who will teach a series of bird identification classes at Effie Yeaw Nature Center in Carmichael starting Wednesday. “It’s an exciting area for bird watching.”
Sacramento is especially good for birding because it is surrounded by major protected habitats, including the American River Parkway, Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, and Cosumnes River Preserve. Even more lie just a little farther afield, including Colusa National Wildlife Refuge and Gray Lodge Wildlife Area, both near Yuba City.
“Everyone can get something out of birding, and you can do it at whatever level you want,” said Sacramento resident Paul Thayer. “There’s lots of room to just take along your binoculars when you go to walk on the American River Parkway or something like that. It’s not something that requires you to study a lot. You get better as you work on it.”
Thayer, former executive officer of the California State Lands Commission, got interested in birding in the 1980s and gradually became more proficient at identifying birds. Since retiring, he spends more time afield looking at birds. Now it’s something he and his wife sometimes build into their vacations.
“I’ve always been interested in the outdoors, and the animal world is endlessly interesting because it’s different from ours,” he said. “Your experience of the local area is richer because you sought out birds in it.”
As people get more interested in birds, Harper said, they naturally become curious about where certain species like to hang out. This leads to an understanding about their habitat and what they like to eat.
“Once you start looking at birds, then you have to start learning about shrubs and trees,” he said. “It’s a great way to learn about the whole outdoors.”
Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.