Western toad painting by Carl Dennis Buell

Birding and other pleasures and aggravations, in Berkeley and beyond, by Ron Sullivan.

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March 2, 2004

Snow Bunting

Chasing extralimitals gets to feeling like golf sometimes. Well, I’m told golf feels this way, and golfers are always cussing and destroying their clubs in cartoons.

So when Joe finds one on the bird hotline—(425) 681-7422—we both try to adopt a goal-free attitude: If we don’t see the bird, at least we’ll see tha place, and maybe other birds. Or posies, or the odd snake or mammal or rock… OK, it gets to be a stretch. Still, we like to get out somewhere, and seeing some bewildered bird way out of its usual range is a good excuse. The scissor-tailed flycatcher that showed up an hour north of here a few years ago was easier to get to than its brethren in Texas, and they’re always a thrill to see. And the cliche’ is that everything shows up in California sooner or later. So there’s that hotline (there are rare bird alerts in lots of places) and there’s a gang of mad birders showing up in the oddest places on weekends.

Joe found a snow bunting on the hotline, hanging out in Clifton Court Forebay. It wasn’t raining Sunday. What the heck, that area around Byron is good for raptors in winter too, and handy to some decent waterfowl.

This bird was almost too easy. He was hopping around, the very stereotype of cheerful little birdie, foraging intently in a patch of dried weeds and rucked-up dirt on the dry side of a diked waterway. There was a firing squad of spotting scopes lined up on the paved dike road, just past the car gate. “Where?” “Just down there in the rough. No, not the grass, closer!”

He was even mostly dressed-up. We’d both seen snow buntings before, but this guy was an adult male molting into his breeding plumage—mostly white (Oh. That’s not a scrap of paper in the wind.) with mostly black wings and tail, black-scaled back, pale-bricky smudges on his upper chest and head. And he was busy.

People came and set up, gazed and gladhanded, pontificated and gossiped, whispered and didn’t whisper, scuffled and shifted around. A couple of guys with fishing poles went by on bicycles, between us and the bird. The bird, not 50 feet away, looked at us now and then but never flinched or started, just kept after those weed seeds.

So here’s this bird, and he might be in trouble or he might just be on vacation, who knows? He looked healthy enough. He looked gorgeous. I wonder what we looked like. Miscolored bears? Contorted seals? Caribou with something really wrong? Evidently not something that eats little birds. It’s pleasant to be taken lightly.

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