Recently I was presenting a two-part documentary about the decline of grassland bird species for ARD and Arte. As well as filming in Europe, I also visited the USA to interview and enjoy some birding with the bestselling US author, Jonathan Franzen, who has written The Corrections, Freedom, Purity and The End of the End of the Earth which is a collection of essays.
What made this particularly special is that I love books and after birding, devouring books is my favourite pastime. I particularly loved Jonathan’s essays as they managed to encapsulate some of my views, such as how some climate breakdown campaigners want to reduce carbon emissions at the expense of saving wildlife species from extinction. I believe that stopping climate breakdown is essential but we can not ignore extinctions happening now.
Jonathan Franzen has birded The Panoche Valley near San Jose, California each winter for many years, keeping records of all sightings, making him a credible witness to declining grassland bird populations. On our first morning in California, we birded in Hollister, seeing Golden-crowned Sparrow by the roadside and Canvasback on a reservoir. The next morning, we met in the valley at 4 am, after a very early start for Jonathan, who left home at 2 am. I had sent him a short list of my target birds so he could prepare.
My day with Jonathan was fantastic and enormously interesting. Due to logistical arrangements, I spent the day travelling in Jonathan’s car, chatting and birding together. His car was pretty beat up and fitted his low key look.
He was quiet and private with a clear passion for birds shining through. This was not someone who loved fame, but someone who did care passionately about birds. He also had a dry sense of humour that kept my teenage brain entertained as well. Jonathan had an admirable sense of duty about his need to use his fame and celebrity to raise awareness about conservation and environmental issues and is very clearly committed to these causes. I found him to be very intelligent, articulate and eloquent which you would expect from someone who writes the complex and interesting books that he does.
We started by looking for Western Screech Owl, as we made our way into the valley pre-dawn. Jonathan suggested that we keep stopping and spot-lighting trees, but without any success or even a call.
The Panoche Valley was vast, flat, with mountains on the edges. The fields were large brown plains and had very little grass, just short stubby growth. We then drove into the mountains, with its dry rock with gully’s, looking for Chukar Partridge. It is an introduced species which Jonathan had only seen once before so it was not surprising that even after reaching the mountains just after dawn, we did not see one despite an extensive search.
I was more hopeful about the next bird that Jonathan wanted to show me, Mountain Plover, as this was the best place in California to see them in winter. Jonathan told me that the best approach was to keep moving and scanning long distances. Eventually, we saw a small group relatively close to our car, the first sighting that winter. He told me to look out for Ferruginous Hawk, explained how to identify it and then pointed one out, the first of three, as well a stunning Bald Eagle. After a picnic lunch, we filmed our interviews before Jonathan said goodbye and headed off.
The next morning I filmed at the Golden Gate Bridge, then had time to bird before our flight home. Heron’s Head is a tiny and beautiful nature reserve recommended by Jonathan. It was by San Francisco Bay but next to the docks and industrial area. There were lots of people enjoying being in nature who stopped to chat. When I saw a showy Ridgway’s Rail, some people looked through my Leica scope, not believing how good their view was. We also chatted to a lovely birder who turned out be Dorian Anderson who did The USA Green Big Year by bike in 2014.
Jonathan and I talked about my previous birding trip to California in the summer of 2016 and my favourite birds such as Californian Condor, Yellow-billed Magpie and Island Scrub Jay. He asked me lots of questions about my world birding and seemed genuinely interested in my thoughts on conservation issues. We also discussed my desire to see all the hummingbirds of the Americas, the ones I had seen in the USA, and how fantastic he thought it was that I had already seen half of them.
I think California is a great place to go birding and loved my 4-week trip during the summer of 2016. My three favourite birding sites were Monterey Bay where we did a fantastic pelagic with Debi Shearwater. The best birds were Scripp’s Murrelet, Pigeon Guillemot, Pink-footed Shearwater, Rhinoceros Auklet and Black-footed Albatross as well as two huge Blue, Fin and Humpback Whales.
Next was The Pinnacles National Monument where we saw three Californian Condor and lots of Stellar’s Jay. At the nearby San Luis Reservoir we found endemic Yellow-billed Magpie and Swainson’s Hawk. The last was Ventura, on the coast, where we saw Allen’s Hummingbird, Snowy Plover, Least Tern and Island Scrub Jay on Santa Cruz Island. At the nearby Whelan Lake Bird Reserve, we saw Hutton’s and Bell’s Vireo, Savannah Sparrow and the iconic Greater Roadrunner before California Gnatcatcher at San Elijo Lagoon.
My trip was short but memorable on so many counts, five new world birds in three days, being guided by a local knowledgable birder and spending time with someone so interesting and inspiring from a literary point of view.
Read more about Mya-Rose on her Birdgirl blog.