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Bird watching: Inspiration & continuing education

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Bird watching: Inspiration & continuing education

At the same dairy pond on South Airport Way, my early morning bird-watching from my parked car yielded this photograph of an American moorhen exercising its legs on the water.

ROSE ALBANO RISSO/The Bulletin


POSTED March 31, 2012 12:34 a.m.

I carefully composed the picture I wanted take with my camera. I was not using a tripod. So, to help steady my grip, I leaned heavily against my car from my driver’s seat with the window down, and secured a firm foothold for my arms.

It was quiet. Not even a breeze ruffled the petals of the delicate almond blossom that filled my camera frame. The lighting was a little subdued, with no harsh shadows to mar the snow-white petals. Perfect, I thought.

The single blossom was firmly in sharp focus. I held my breath. Then ever so carefully I squeezed the shutter release button. But before I could fully click it, suddenly from out of the blue – BAM! It was as if someone shouted, “Freeze!” And I did freeze for an infinitesimal second as, in total surprise – and awe, I might add – I gaped at the now-different view from my camera’s eyepiece. There, just a few feet from me, the sharp claws of its skinny left foot clutching my target blossom right at the stem, was a charcoal-gray bird whose identity I didn’t know at that time. It gave out a sharp tweet with its sharp beak arrogantly thrown in the air as though daring me to shoo it away, and then turned its head to show me its profile dominated by a very sharp eye. The brazen attention-grabber stood there with its pointy rump to my face. With a trio of quick staccato movements to its tail, and with another quick tweet, it was gone as quickly as it appeared.

But not before I could capture its image which I was able to use later as reference while trying to find the identity of this avian interloper.

I remember that Kodak moment very well because it marked the exact time I became interested in bird photography. And I’ve been fascinated with these feathered friends ever since. However, unlike many ardent bird watchers and photographers who go on photo safaris to birding sites near and far, I shoot birds where I find them during my perambulations around the countryside in Manteca, and other places outside of San Joaquin County where my husband and I happen to visit.

I’ve taken photos of acorn woodpeckers – a rowdy bunch! – and American robins in the oak and locust trees growing along the edge of the greens behind the home of Mel and Joan Kauffman at Pine Mountain Lake in Groveland.

I’ve photographed kites hovering in the air above the hills of Lafayette near Danville, their outstretched legs and sharp talons ready to swoop down at their prey below. I was once lucky to capture a dramatic picture of a big bird, its black wings spread out as it coasted in the breeze above the hills around the Danville area, while my husband was driving. I liked the picture so much I told my husband I was going to use it for our Christmas card that year. He looked at me as though I was out of my mind. Puzzled at his reaction, I asked, “Why? What’s wrong with this beautiful, free-as-the-wind bird? It’s perfect!”

“A vulture for a Christmas card?” he countered quite incredulously.

My jaw dropped. I stared at the digital image that I was just admiring. That’s a vulture? Sorry, Mr. Vult. No Christmas card for you.

Driving around the countryside in South Manteca is always a treat for me, especially around the dairies. The birds always know where they can have a feast, and the cows never complain about sharing their food with God’s tiny creatures. When I first heard the word “murmuration” last year, the first thing that came to mind were the thousands of black birds and European starlings moving fluidly en masse like ballet dancers in the gray winter skies above the dairy farms and rich agricultural fields. I learned that word from the facebook page of Joel Maybury, the Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate in Bourdeaux, France. Joel is a former reporter of the Manteca Bulletin who went on to work at the Daily Review in Hayward and the Oakland Tribune before he decided to say goodbye to journalism and pursue a career in foreign service. He has been an avid birdwatcher for years. In fact, he was the one who planted in me the seeds of this interesting pastime years ago.

Writing about these feathered friends in the Bulletin also opened my eyes to the number of local residents who are really into bird watching. I learned a lot – and still learning – from them too. As an amateur birder – and I know I’m complimenting myself when I say that because I still have a lot to learn – I’m often fortunate to find some feathered friends whose identity I know nothing about. Several years ago, I used the picture of a bird that I described as a mallard to accompany a column I wrote. A hunter’s wife was kind enough to send me an e-mail saying what I actually captured with my camera was a wood duck! She said I was fortunate to have captured that picture because this particular bird species does not make itself as readily visible as, say, the Canada Goose. By the way, I found the wood duck swimming along with another bird with less impressive plumage at the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers.

From bird-watcher readers, I’ve also become familiar with the long-billed curlew – I stumbled upon a flock of them at Doxey Park in north Manteca this winter – and with the scrub jay. A picture that ran in the Bulletin for my first-day-of-spring photo essay included a pair of blue jays – at least, that’s what I called them. That prompted Bulletin reader Ron Kreitzer to send me an e-mail saying, “I believe they are more appropriately called scrub jays.”

He went on to say that he and his wife are “very, very amateur bird lovers and have lived around scrub jays for many, many years.”

He said he used the National Audubon Society Western Region Field Guide to Birds and Watchable Birds of California as “reference points.”

He is right, of course.

Every day, I’m finding out bird that watching is really a continuing education, besides being a source of inspiration for my other hobby – poetry writing.

Oh, and that rude and brash bird that tried to steal the limelight from the almond blossom I was photographing, and who seemingly mocked my photographic efforts? It was, truly, a mockingbird.

ROSE ALBANO RISSO

209 staff reporter

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