Monday, November 29, 2010

Surrounded by Buffleheads

“We are now,” Captain Ronn announced over the Delphinus' loudspeaker, “surrounded by Buffleheads.”

I started to snicker. Hey, my whole week had been like that. And here I was out in the cold, bright sunshine of a perfect day for birding by boat on the San Francisco Bay, and I couldn’t get away from them even in the serenity of sincere birders and a diesel engine bubbling through the green waters of my famous bay.

Bobble Heads, I thought. I’m surrounded by Bobble Heads! No, wait, these are ducks, Buffleheads. I focused a minute and brought my mini-nocs to my eyes. “Hey,” I said to my dear friend Ronda and my dear husband John, “they’re pretty! Look!” They were, too.

Going on natural history trips is one of my favorite treats. Those of you who know me personally will understand when I say that I don’t exactly have an REI physique. In the rough-and-tumble world of the outdoors, let’s just say I spend a lot more time with tumble than rough. But I love outdoor adventures.

I must get it from my Dad. The itty bitty Colonel fancied himself a naturalist of sorts, Man Against Nature. Capital letters are required here, his being the Colonel and all. He was an engineer and architect and his orientation was that nature was both an obstacle to be conquered and a resource to be savored. He could identify birds by their songs while his hearing was still pretty good and trees by name. Dangerous animals like snakes were supposed to be killed and fish and deer were to be captured and eaten. It was a hairy-chested nature for him, very macho, very special-effects laden. Moles that dug up a lawn weren’t just captured in a trap; they were eliminated with explosives. Dad was a whole show in himself sometimes.

My orientation to nature was a bit different. I objected to killing things, except perhaps the giant cockroaches they called “palmetto bugs” in Florida. Aside from that small but important exception, I wanted nature for pets or at least to watch them be themselves. My greatest wish was to have a pet [fill in the blank with usually something furry with bright eyes and a wiggly nose, generally a kitten, but also raccoon, skunk, mouse, squirrel, rabbit, puppy, even bird or snake] that I could take with me everywhere who would be my very best friend forever. We had pet fish, birds, a rat, a snake, ant farms, cats, dogs and even entertained thoughts of (was Mom really serious about this?) a pet coatimundi for a while. When I went fishing, I would catch “cute” perch and sunfish with worms and an easy hook. I considered the fish visiting me, so I took them off the hook, kissed them and set them free. After a while, I didn’t like the number of fish who were harmed by the hooks, so I stopped fishing and just amused myself looking in the water. We had a frog “farm”. We had pet red-eared turtles and box tortoises. And there was the toad thing. I didn’t want to conquer nature; I wanted full immersion.

Fairly early I learned that I wanted full immersion without mosquitoes, no-see-ums, chiggers or any other buggy thing that found me edible. And no cockroaches either. So the idea of actually roughing it in the rough was, well, too rough for me. But that never kept me from my urge to slake my thirst for natural history. It just modified it a bit.

Fast forward to current times where I have an indulgent husband who is happy to follow my curiosity where it will lead and my good friend Ronda who loves birds and ecology. We decided a while back that our favorite gifts to each other were gifts of experience. We still make the occasional hand-knitted treasure (from her) or beaded and embroidered whimsy (from me), but we agree that our best presents are the ones that don’t take up any space. We go on Field Trips and we signed up for the Point Reyes Association’s Birds of San Francisco Bay Birding Boat Tour with John Klobas and his daughter Sarah.

Lucky us, not only John and Sarah and their love of birds and behind-the-scenes nature stories were our guides, but the owners and operators of our vessel Delphinus were Ronn Patterson and Barb, none other than the leaders of a little birding cruise up the Napa River the hubs and I had enjoyed a while back.

I’ve said before that I’m not a birder. I’m not. I don’t keep lists of birds I’ve seen. I don’t get excited at the sighting of a Black Oystercatcher perhaps the way I should if I were a birder. Instead I think of things like, “How fast does a bird have to be to catch an oyster anyway? They’re cemented to rocks, fer goodness’ sake.” I do connect with the fact that a very cool looking black bird with a bright orange bill foraging in the rocks I snapped pictures of in Monterey Bay back in 2008 was probably one of those. Ah, I think, a cool-looking bird. I like birds.

I like birders, too. They’re quiet. They don’t want to scare birds. They usually don’t wear makeup or anything besides warm layers and the perfect shoes for the conditions, whatever the conditions. Most of all, they don’t want me to fix anything associated with computers, so they make the most delightful company when I want to get away from it all. Birders are, for the most part, scrupulously honest folk because they are keeping their own personal list of whether or not they’ve actually seen a bird. They really want to see the bird, whatever it is, and so will not allow themselves to have counted it unless they really saw it. That sort of integrity can be refreshing and blended with a lack of pretentiousness, almost as cute as the furry little thing I wanted as a pet or friend. They still have cool toys like killer binoculars with backpack-like elastic straps to keep the tools of the hobby handy without crashing into everything. They admire each others’ shoes for their practicality in all-weather conditions. They may branch off into woolen goods colored with natural dyes like mushrooms or windbreakers with the right amount of convenient pockets. They may also have cameras with enviable lenses and filters. They generally are willing to talk about these, in hushed tones of course so as not to disturb the birds. They are gentle, honest folk who want to see our wonderful world continue.

We did naturally see birds: Terns, Goldeneyes, Sandpipers, Osprey, grebe, San Francisco Giants-color-correct surf scoters, loons, great egrets with black feet and snowy egrets with yellow feet like flipflops at the beach, Merganser, Scaup, coot, Canada goose. I learned about Lipstick gulls and their kleptoparasitism of brown pelican. Basically, similar to an annoying practice common in the corporate world, a pelican will catch the fish only to have its closest companion the gull take the fish, like taking credit for the pelican’s work. We saw a pigeon that had strayed offshore, a land-based bird on holiday, perhaps. And we saw a single Black Oystercatcher. It was a glorious Two of Wands day, a day to hold the world in your hands and look out beyond your usual castle walls to absorb something new.

I learned that Buffleheads not only do OK in rougher waters, they seek them out. And something connected with my own life, some penchant for avoiding the easy path because I knew my life was going a different way. There is something about my tendency to hop into whitecap waters of the corporate world, a place where most people try to seek either the premium high-ranking roost or hope for some protected cove of glassy surface where a comfortable sameness provides security. There I was, surrounded by Buffleheads, a duck not out of water, in the tossy cold waters of the Bay, aware that I had the whole world in my hands.

Best wishes!


Hey, want to get away from it all in your own back yard or perhaps just a little farther away? Check these out:

JOHN KLOBAS is a naturalist who regularly teaches docent training and natural history classes at Santa Rosa Junior College. It is equally possible to find him knee deep in a tide pool, on the side of a mountain, observing and teaching about natural history and animals, or soaking in a hot spring. He is the leader of John Klobas Wildlife Adventures, specializing in birding, marine mammal, natural history, environmental education, backpacking, and mountain climbing adventures throughout California and the West. He is the author of Life Cycle of the Pacific Gray Whale and can be reached at

SARAH KLOBAS has been birding with her dad since she was five. She has a BS in Wildlife Biology from UC Davis and has studied birds in California, Mexico, and Washington. She works as a biologist with the Sonoma/Marin Mosquito and Vector Control District and is a GGRO hawk watcher.

More on the Delphinus and Dolphin Charters:

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