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Day of the Dead Tribute: Remembering Paul Green

Part 1 of this series is here.

By David Rice

Migratory birds are inspirational.  They appear each spring in fresh plumage, the singers in full song, having flown hundreds or thousands of miles, and they remind us it is time to renew ourselves again.  The best way to receive their message is to go out to the woods or fields and hear these immaculately robed preachers seem to praise the sun, the new buds, the insect hatches, and the joy of hope.

One year in late April, when many neo-tropical migrants pass through California on the way to their breeding grounds, Helen Green, her husband, Paul, and I joined others in an overnight hike through the Sutter Buttes.  The buttes are an island of oaks and rocky crags about ten miles across, with six peaks over sixteen hundred feet, in the middle of the low Central Valley.  The valley’s towns, farms, and freeways were invisible and inaudible as we walked and birded.

In an open forest of blue oak we put our day packs down and chased a flock of warblers up a hillside.  None would nest here.  I wondered, where were they going?  We listened for birdsong as we hiked and reached our campsite in mid-afternoon, just before the pick-up truck arrived with the rest of our gear and a fried chicken dinner.  The leader of our group said he had expected to hear more Empidonax flycatchers, but birders can never expect all their listing prayers to be answered.

We are all on our own migrations, psychological as well as physical, and Paul was at a difficult crossing.  His cancer, which had been in remission, had returned.  This was his last camping trip.  That night, awake in my sleeping bag, I remembered some of the birding trips we had taken together over the past fifteen years: the time he found a Great Horned Owl perched in a distant tree one afternoon; how he liked to bet a quarter on the number of species we would see each day; how he was always eager to look for one more bird.

The next morning, before resuming our hike, a few of us climbed one of the nearby buttes.  Paul went to the top.  He always liked to stand on the summit and look into the distance.  The rest of us stayed lower and looked for birds.  Maybe he was looking for something else.

We hiked out of the buttes at mid-day through green spring fields that had not yet turned brown in the soon-to-arrive summer heat.  If only we could turn around and walk back to the campsite, have someone bring us chicken dinner every night, have this spring never end and Paul get well.  I looked at him.  He was looking at a meadowlark.

Western Meadowlark. Photo by Dan Dzurisin via flickr

Western Meadowlark. Photo by Dan Dzurisin via flickr

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Paul died that October.  In early November I asked Helen if she wanted to go birding the day after Thanksgiving.  The three of us had often taken a bird trip on that weekend, and I thought she might like to look for birds between her waves of grief.  She said yes, she wanted to come.

As we ascended the south fork of the Yuba River, the birds were few and the sky was overcast.  In the quiet that filled the car I wondered if the trip was a mistake.  When we descended Yuba Pass, a goshawk swiped across the road.  Helen was looking inward and did not see it.

In Sierra Valley the sky was still overcast and the wind made us put on extra  clothing.  We did get a close look at a Ferruginous Hawk on a pole, but birds were still scarce.  We drove back to the interstate on an unpaved road through a silent forest.  At a reservoir, when we looked through our scopes, a distant flock of ducks became Canvasbacks and goldeneyes.  One of the shapes proved to be a Common Loon.  By now Helen was looking outward again and seeing birds.  Then the temperature really began to fall and she got cold.  We drove home.  Months later Helen twice thanked me for taking her birding that day.  She said it helped her keep going and gave her something to do besides be sad.

Three years after Paul died, on the day after Thanksgiving, Helen and I birded the Nature Conservancy’s Cosumnes River Preserve in the Central Valley.  She had spent the holiday itself with family.  It was foggy when we met at the Preserve, and the birds were not active.  Though the early birder does see more birds, we could have waited another hour.  Soon another car arrived.  Two men in their forties, with binoculars around their necks, got out.  They were there, they said, to see “whatever birds we can” and hiked off down the trail.

When the fog lifted we birded some nearby ponds.  Four more cars were parked by the roadside and four more groups of birders were looking at the ducks and geese.  By mid-afternoon twelve more cars had brought two dozen birders to look at the ducks and geese and, by now, even some shorebirds at the ponds.  Small flocks of cranes called as they flew overhead.  A man with a white beard was talking to some college students.  Some people were consulting field guides and then looking again through their scopes.  It was like a party: birders and their birds.

I propose we designate the Friday after Thanksgiving as National Birding Day.  Since it gets dark early, we could bird and still get home for a dinner of the feast’s leftovers.  The weekend still lies ahead.  National Birding Day would celebrate not how many birds we see, but what birds have to offer us.  That night, we could give thanks a second time.

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This is an excerpt from the book, Why We Bird, published by Golden Gate Audubon Society and available on Amazon.