by Todd Newberry
Phoebe Photo - Michelle Scott
A mile up the road from where I live is one of the University of
California's arboretums, a spectacular site overlooking Monterey
Bay. When, thirty years ago, a macadamia bush and some eucalyptus
trees were planted to start this collection, these fifty acres were
just the corner of a huge upland pasture, with mucky wallows and
almost impenetrable thickets where, as I recall, big and scary cattle
lurked. Now most of the acreage has become gardens, copses, and
greenhouses filled with expatriate plants from South Africa, Australia,
and New Zealand. It is a nightmare for devotees of native plants
but a splendid habitat for native birds. In the course of the year,
a birder here will find close to eighty kinds of birds.
Hummingbird Photo - Michelle Scott
Some of the arboretum's bucolic surroundings are about to change.
Beyond one fence line, a few slopes are still remnant ranchland;
even now, cattle occasionally graze there. A creek has worn gentle
hollows across these pastures. Misbegotten attempts long ago to
turn part of the creek bed into a reservoir have left two dikes.
During the winter rains one of them holds back enough water to make
a respectable pond amidst the willows, and the other dike stops
enough to flood a woodsy marsh. By late spring the water has seeped
away into the caverns that riddle this land. The creek and its hollows
are slated for "restoration," which means the loss of some old attractions
for wildlife-let's hope with the gain of some new ones. But along
another fence line, the university plans to border this idyllic
place with a big project: townhouses for people and "indoor" cats.
As these acres have gone from pasture to gardens, their birdlife
has completely changed, and more changes are in store. As the university's
campus intrudes, the meadowlarks will leave the open fields where
they winter now; and tree-loving accipiters and Red-shouldered Hawks
will replace the harriers and Golden Eagles and Red-tails that scour
the grasslands. Quail flourish in the arboretum. When they find
those quail-and find the thrashers, too, and the towhees and the
other ground-loving birds that have adopted the arboretum's gardens
as their own-the new townhouses' escapee cats will think they have
arrived in Heaven and the birds will learn about Hell.
Swallow Photo - Michelle Scott
I wish I had had the patience and the gumption to monitor the arboretum's
birdlife over these past decades, for it has been an ecological
theater transformed while the play on its stage went on. Do the
arithmetic: in those thirty years, had I visited the place for only
a couple of hours weekly on the way to work, instead of just driving
by, I would have documented some three thousand hours of ecological
observations. What an opportunity squandered! And with all this
activity afoot around the place's edges, who will record what happens
next to the birds that live here now? Someone should, anyone can-even
Monitoring a patch, even a glorious one like this arboretum, usually
seems trivial as you do it. (Of course, that's been my excuse.)
Week by week, not much happens, and what does mark the calendar
as species arrive and depart is roughly predictable. The same date
rolls around again, and mostly the same kinds and numbers of birds
seem to be there. Censuses go along briskly enough; but as the weeks
stretch on, they can feel tedious. The data sheets fill slowly.
Truancy tempts. That's when we need to remember the childhood hymn
about how little drops of water and little grains of sand made the
mighty ocean and the fruitful land. Here on our patch, those drops
and grains are what we are monitoring.
Swallow Photo - Michelle Scott
Not all patches are as birdy as UCSC's arboretum. But over the
seasons, most are birdier than they may first appear to be. An embarrassing
case in point: One August afternoon forty years ago in the Big Sur,
my wife and I followed a lazy river from the highway to the sea.
It was hot and still; the path seemed all but birdless. "Well, Louise,"
I declared after an hour, "we can write off this place." "This place"
has since become the Big Sur Ornithological Lab, one of the liveliest
birding sites on the central California coast. Moral: In an unfamiliar
place, be more patient than I was that day.
Unlike the Big Sur Lab, most patches won't make ornithological headlines.
But that doesn't matter. The very exercise of monitoring a habitat's
ongoing birdlife instills some of a naturalist's skills, keenness,
and patience. In fact, the sheer pleasure of following the seasons
on a patch of one's own is reward enough. Take good notes!
Todd Newberry is Professor Emeritus of Biology at U.C. Santa Cruz
and a founding Fellow of Cowell College there. He is an invertebrate
zoologist, a marine biologist, and a lifelong ardent birder.
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