By Steve Scauzillo, San Gabriel Valley Tribune
I walked into the Big 5 in Pasadena and waited for the young man to finish his negotiation with the salesman. He was buying bullets, presumably to hunt animals or target shoot.
“Just a second. I’ll be right with you,” said the clerk.
When he asked how he could help me, I became aware of the distinction.
“I need some good binoculars to watch birds,” I told him.
A few days later I stowed in my car the new binoculars with my camera and my largest lens, plus a birding scope and my trusty Audubon book on birds of North America. My wife, Karen, and I set out for Morro Bay, in particular, the Morro Bay National Estuary, where shorebirds and birds of prey are abundant. In short, a great place for bird watching.
I’m always skittish when I say that’s the reason I went to Morro Bay or why I like hanging out at Hahamongna Watershed Park.
“My wife and I enjoy bird watching.” I always get looks like you’re somehow not as tough as that guy in front of me at the counter at Big 5.
But when I’m watching a bird in my scope, I’m lost in the moment for what seems like hours. I quickly forget about what anybody thinks.
A bird’s detailed plumage can fill up a painter’s palette. So many shades of blue, orange, red, black. That’s a world opened up to me only through high-powered lenses.
A bird’s behavior can be remarkable, curious, fascinating or mundane. In flight, each bird flies differently.
Studying birds as they flew helped Orville and Wilbur Wright design the first flying machine. As documented in the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough’s inspiring book “The Wright Brothers,” Wilbur spent hours on the sands of Kitty Hawk, studying turkey vultures (he called them buzzards), gannets, hawks and eagles in flight.
“The reality of what birds could do —the miracle of birds — remained a subject of continuing importance of and fascination …” McCullough wrote. Sometimes people would watch Wilbur flapping his wings like a bird and laugh.
So I’m in good company.
I walked the strand that curls around Morrow Rock with a purpose: to see the peregrine falcon, the bird that tops all birds of prey. The king of kings in flight, capable of reaching speeds of 240 miles per hour. That’s right! That makes the peregrine falcon the fastest animal on the earth.
They eat other birds by snatching them out of the air. It’s called stooping. A peregrine strafes an area populated by shorebirds and then when it eyes its potential victim, descends into a vertical warp speed dive until bam! It literally connects with its dinner.
“I can take you to where they’re at,” said a man wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a warm smile.
I knew from the museum curator that the peregrines nest in Morrow Rock, a volcanic outcropping almost twice the height of the Statue of Liberty. Peregrines like high places. For stooping.
“There,” he said, pointing to a rock ledge near the top. I trained my scope on it and could clearly see the white-breasted bird with a black head and sideburns standing tall, peering over the bay like a king overlooking its kingdom. Then, as my wife was watching through the binoculars (the ones I bought at Big 5), it leapt into the air and was gone. Flying so fast, we lost sight of it over the circuitous shoreline.
I added a peregrine to my lifetime bird list. But more than that, I was slain by the experience.
To think we almost lost these birds. Not to hunters, but to farmers who used DDT, a pesticide eventually banned by the EPA. Now, according to Kimball L. Garrett, ornithology collection manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, they have been seen in greater numbers since the 1980s, sometimes on shore cliffs, often nesting in skyscrapers.
“I see them fly by the museum,” he said.
If they or their kind weren’t around for the Wright Brothers to examine, would we have manned flight today?
Steve Scauzillo covers environment and transportation for the Southern California News Group. He is the 13th winner of the Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing. Follow him on Twitter @stevscaz or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.