An Excellent Look

Annoying clock buzz. It’s 3:30 a.m. and hunting-trip dark outside. Get up, shower, make lunch, make coffee for the thermos, pack gear.

This is my second birding trip. Regulars will recall last November’s jaunt to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. I witnessed a few of the 3,000,000 ducks and 1,000,000 geese who roll into the marsh every year to freeload at taxpayer expense.

I’m ready for another go-around, this time to Merced National Wildlife Refuge by way of Mercy Hot Springs. The aforementioned hot springs is located on Fresno county road J-1. One travels along I-5 to Pilibos Ranch, exits onto West Panoche Road, drives on longer than you want to, then turns right on Little Panoche Road and continues until you see the hot springs. Harder to do than to write. Hint, a road sign informs, “Next services 76 miles.”

There are 15 automobiles and one truck in this birding caravan, which is a lot of iron to put on a two-lane, no-shoulders county road. Above is a spotless blue sky. It’s 34 degrees but feels like 60 in the sun. No wind. Hills are lush, emerald green. California in February.

We pull over opposite Clough Canyon (yellow-billed magpie, American kestrel, starlings, western bluebird, northern flicker). Thirty-six people climb out of 15 cars.

Everybody gathers on one side of the road to look at a ferruginous hawk. Somebody calls out, “steller’s jay,” and everybody walks to the other side of the road. Two ranch hands drive by in a beat-up Ford truck, mouths hung open, giving form to the universal sentiment, “What the fuck is this?”

We mount up and drive. Michael, our leader, sees out of the corner of one eye, about 100 yards off the road, a Lewis’ woodpecker, something I wouldn’t have spotted using binoculars. He has the caravan turn around, drive back, and park. Besides the woodpecker, I learn two things. Mistletoe berries are 30 percent fat by weight. The birders’ phrase “Excellent look” is used when you get close and the bird doesn’t move (White-breasted nuthatch, oak titmouse, California thrashers, spotted towhee, Cassin’s kingbird, Lincoln’s sparrow, red-tailed hawk).

Just where you turn right onto J-1 is the Panoche Inn. Seems like 40 miles in every direction is ranch, and then there’s this bar, with dirty black linoleum floor, one pool table, 20 bar stools, half full at noon. I smack my lips and think, Now, this is a bar.

Mercy Hot Springs is guarded by two sagging, ravaged wooden buildings and a parking lot with too many signs, each one announcing, “Guests must register.” Six workers stand around an ancient dry husk of a swimming pool; another three lean against a pickup truck loaded with bags of cement.

Thirty-six birders circle a cottonwood tree. Thirty-six binoculars point upward. We are, at most, 15 feet from tree trunk. The tree is not that tall, maybe two stories high, but it’s thick with interlacing branches. Someone says, “Owls.”

There is a long-eared owl perched no more than 20 feet away. I slowly move my field glasses left, right, up, down, exploring the tree. I count 11 owls. One tree, 11 owls, and I must have missed another dozen. Take note, pilgrim, we stand before the El Dorado of owls!

If you lived somewhere like Mercy Hot Springs and you see owls every day, you’ve stopped paying attention to them long ago, and then one February afternoon you look out your window and there are 36 people who have driven 300 miles with their binoculars, and they’re circling a nondescript tree, packed tight together like penguins, dressed in their khaki pants and Tilley hats, every one of them looking up at the same spot on the same tree. That’s got to be creepy.

Sunday morning, 7:30 a.m. in the San Joaquin Valley (American coots, bittern. ruddy ducks. white-tailed kite. Virginia rail). Mist rises off the ground. It’s 39 degrees, and the sun is already high. This is flat-as-a-tabletop farmland. I drive past fields of spring wheat, alfalfa, broccoli, flip on country-music radio, max up the volume and listen to “Cleaning This Gun.”

The Merced National Wildlife Refuge features a five-mile auto trail. Our caravan, about a mile in, pulls over and people get out of their cars. There is a cheer, “Eagle, eagle, eagle!” I walk up the line of birders and, at line’s end, lift my binoculars, look up, and there he is, a bald eagle. I mutter, “So, that’s why they put him on dollar bills.” After a lifetime of pictures, seeing a bald eagle in the flesh is like seeing one for the first time. What a magnificent animal. Second thought, What’s he doing out here? I picture bald eagles soaring above Mount Rushmore, not perching on a tree stump in the middle of a marsh.

Of course, they do eat road kill.

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