Rogue Birder, Ch. 3, Fledgling Years

Fledgling Years

Once upon a time, actually in 1957, it hit me. I am a Rogue Birder.

The transformation from not being a Rogue Birder to being a Rogue Birder did not happen suddenly. It was not an overnight or Eureka moment. Becoming a Rogue Birder took several steps. It was like Alaskan mosquitoes planting on my naked skin, one by one, pumping into me the allure of birds. It is impossible to know what hit me first. Becoming attracted to birds was a kind of evolution of my preadolescent brain. It was a series of mosquito bites that left more than a swollen welt from their venom on my skin. I became infected, but without fully contemplating the fever that would become a chronic symptom, the need to see birds. Certain pivotal moments sped the process that threw me forward, that increased my zeal to learn more in larger steps.

The very early 1950’s was one awakening period. My parents and younger sister and I lived on Barnett Road, then on the outskirts of Medford. At that time, there were a few houses along the two-lane paved road. Our house was about a mile east of Bear Creek. Residents further east along Barnett Road were sparse. Many open fields and views of Baldy, Roxyann and Barneburg Hill could be seen out the east and back windows. Baldy was mostly bald of antennas then and Barneburg Hill was an oak savanna and bald of any inhabitation. A country grocery was about six houses away. Four houses down was KYJC radio, where my dad had a second job keep up the landscaping. Grass had to be mowed every week during the lawn season. I pitched in by using a power mower on most of the grass while my dad did the trimming around the side walk, pruning shrubs and eradicating any weeds foolish enough to grow in the graveled driveway and parking area. The parking lot was a great place to play bicycle tag and Killdeers sometimes nested in its more remote edges.


Barnett Road, somewhere below.  Rogue Valley in 1973 was far more rural.

KYJC occupied a former slaughter that burned and was rebuilt as a three bedroom house. The station, owned by the Medford Mail Tribune, was sold in 1973. The antenna, then behind the station, was surrounded by some sort of tall weed taller than my young frame. The habitat was unlike my own back yard and I have always wondered what kinds of birds might have nested around the antenna.

Not long after moving on Barnett Road, I heard a strange sounding bird. I hurried outside and heard an almost sad refrain. It was loud and alluding. Was the bird throwing its voice? Finally, I happened to be looking in the right direction as a darkish bird flew into view, landed at the apex of the garage where I chop kindling for the morning fire, and then darted from sight. It was smaller than a robin and definitely bigger than a hummingbird. I heard the whistle again and relocated the mystery bird. It landed on a fence post long enough for me to take in some field marks, which allowed me to identify my first Say’s Phoebe. Little did I know that the species would be the subject of one of my first papers on taxonomy. There is more to that story, but I will stop here.

Behind the our house was a weedy field, just as it was behind all the houses. Star thistle had not invaded it, so it was easy and painless to explore. Property boundaries between houses were vague and I roamed the field looking for rabbits and soon discovered Ring-necked Pheasants. From huge slabs of bark, I built a lean-to, which I placed on the ground several yards away behind the house. It should accommodate pheasants or maybe rabbits, but pheasants were what I hoped to host. In about a week, I walked out to the lean-to and found the the weeds around it were tamped down and the ground littered with some sort of black and white poop. Having had a life thus far of knowing the barefoot meaning of chicken poop, I reasoned, based on the imagined size of a Ring-necked Pheasant, that my poop, that is, the poop under the lean-to, is that of a pheasant. My observation in the field was further supported by the lack of any sightings of chickens and the pleasure of seeing a pheasant or two hiding in the area before total urbanization took place.

So much for Barnett Road, at least for now. At this point, I have only minor symptoms of bird fever, but change is in the wind.

In the fifth grade, my never married teacher made the entire class join the junior Audubon Society, or so we thought. By “made” the class join, meant what she said, we did or get a ruler across the, well, whatever body part that was within easy striking distance. Moreover, we did not officially join any organization, but we all thought we did. One of the “members” included a girl named Linda, who I met in the fourth grade, and who is now not just my birding buddy, but is also my soul mate, which is another story. Anyway, some of us fifth graders were scared of our teacher. Others learned to behave or like me, become a little defiant, to become an artful dodger of the wooden rule of the teacher. I also learned a little about birds.

My first field trip, I suppose, was with my fifth grade compatriots. We walked behind our teacher, a short bent woman with her hair pulled tightly in a bun. She was not much taller than were her students. Our walk took us from the two-story brick schoolhouse down the street to the Phoenix Cemetery, a mix of ponderosa pine and madrone. Linda and I did not know at the time that we would choose, about 50 years later, the very same cemetery for our last birding location. Of course, that is another story too. Anyway the junior birders were forced to see scrub-jays, robins, Acorn Woodpeckers and in spring, maybe a Black-headed Grosbeak. Fidgety fifth graders, especially if you are not interested in becoming a birder, are not going to see much more than a handful of the larger, slower moving and more common species. Surely, the only one that might have spied a Ruby-crowned Kinglet was our teacher and she was probably intelligent enough to know better to point it out.

Linda feared for my safety during the fifth grade. I was not always the artful dodger of that wooden ruler. She also was a little mystified why a ten-year-old would follow such a belligerent teacher’s zeal for birds. Looking back, that teacher was not the spark that lit my fuse, but she did get my attention. Truly, I should have not been defiant when the teacher physically tried to change my nonbirder misbehaviors. It must have been difficult for my teacher dealing with my sometimes-poor citizenship and at the same time knowing she may have a real student of birds. The teacher’s dual situation left me shaken and stirred.

The bird bug was biting down, gnawing me, and stirring me for more. Discovering those little pocket-sized red, yellow, green and blue bird books at the local dime store in Medford opened my eyes further. Once I completed my first dozen years on the planet, I discovered I could go out on my own and find birds. I did a lot of walking and biking then. Birdwatching solo was welcome since my experience looking for birds had been with the noisy fifth graders. Yes, even then I hoped for less talking and more silence despite the fact that once back in the classroom, I was the one talking too much. By now, just one year from becoming a teenager, I yearned for the out-of-doors, with quite, solitude and birds.

In those days, looking at birds was called bird watching and anyone bird watching, which became a one-word activity, birdwatching, was a birdwatcher. In those days and many to come, birdwatchers were strange people, usually someone that was an old lady, a teenage boy or some other odd duck that did not fit into society. Even at 12, I felt the negative attitude towards birdwatchers was discriminatory, although I barely knew what the word meant. However, I really did not care all that much what people thought. My level of interest in birds overcame most everything.

At the time, I was living south of Medford on Barnett Road, the road that began off U.S. 99, then the major north/south inland route west of the Cascade Mountains. Barnett Road ended a few miles east of my home at North Phoenix Road, the road that the yellow school bus traveled to Phoenix Grade School where I learned more about birds and avoided getting into trouble from not paying attention and looking out the windows. When not at school and having my permanent record sullied, I explored beyond the field behind the house and found a creek. That creek was not a bad place to look for birds. Not knowing the name of the creek, I dubbed it South Creek.

One block east on Barnett Road, and then about a block north was another creek. So-called ranch houses lined the street blocks. In order to access the second creek, dubbed, what else, North Creek, meant following its bank, carefully avoiding not stepping on the properties of its shores. In just a few yards, North Creek flowed through a large open field. Any riparian vegetation that might have been there was long gone. The grasses on the field were short, as if grazed heavily by sheep. I am not sure why the rolling field was almost lawn-like, but there it was, a great habitat for something. It did not take long to scare up eccentric appearing owls glaring at me from their long legs. What brand of owl could they be? They were standing at ground squirrel burrows and would sometimes duck into a cavity. How strange.

My memory fails me here, as well as many other places, and I’m not sure what happened once I got home. As I recall, my dime store reference library did not help me identify the strange subterranian owls. I do know that, from my mother’s idea, that I called the public library. Someone there put me in touch with Tom McCament, who wrote an occasional column on birds in then the Medford Mail Tribune, the local newspaper. Luckily, our party line stayed clear of other users and I made the call to Tom McCament. I was nervous, but carefully described what I saw. Surprisingly, he was very interested and asked if I would take him to my birds. The next day, Tom McCament came to my house. My mother seemed pleased that he took the time to meet me. During the meeting, it was revealed that Mr. McCament was actually Reverend McCament of a local church and that he had been birdwatching in the Rogue Valley for years. Finally, we walked up North Creek into the owl field and found the mystery birds. Reverend McCament, who I would later call Tom, told me the birds are Burrowing Owls. That the diurnal owls appear to be nesting was an owl feather in my cap since Tom told me the species had not nested in the Rogue Valley for years. My discovery was a real discovery.

By sheer dumb luck, I had stumbled onto a good find. I had made my mark or at least some kind of mark. The tall lanky birder confirmed that my sighting was useful, and invited me to accompany him and a birdwatching friend on a field trip. I was elated. I was becoming a Rogue Birder.

As a burgeoning Rogue Birder, I spent as much time birding the near far reaches of the Rogue Valley as possible. From the valley, I could see parts of Klamath County, in the form of promontories of Crater Lake National Park, the park where the Rogue River begins. Mostly from maps, I knew that beyond Crater Lake were vast wetlands. Truly, I was in danger of birds that might have launched themselves from the formidable Klamath marshes. Some of these eastern birds visited the Rogue Valley and I wanted to see them. I also could see California from the southern top of the Rogue Valley watershed, and I thought of those birds making their way over the Siskiyou Mountains and down into my valley. I began to realize being a Rogue Birder is better than average.

It was a good thing the Rogue Valley did have interesting birds since, at 12, going on 13, locomotion to places such as the Everglades and Arizona were only dreams. Being too young to operate large machines such as a car and since Barnett Road was not on any artery for public transportation translated to limited youthful travel. Walking or biking was essentially my only way to see birds. My first field trip, not counting the birdwatching marches in the fifth grade was to South Creek. The expedition was on 2 February 1957, the weather was “nice” and I saw nine species. How do I know? That trip was the beginning of recording my birding adventures, the seed of field notes that would occupy pages of observations, reams of notes and chapters of fun.

That first field trip listed simply Meadowlark and Bluebird. I was barely aware there was two of each. I also wrote Green Backed Goldfinch, apparently unaware of the correct use of lower case and hyphens. Little did I realize the controversy hyphens would elicit decades later? In the case of the goldfinch, it correctly might have been Green-backed Goldfinch, but the name today is Lesser Goldfinch. The other goldfinch that a Rogue Birder could expect to see is not the Greater Goldfinch, but the American Goldfinch. As far as I know, there is no Greater Goldfinch. On my second recorded field trip, I listed Red Shafted Flicker, Golden Crowned Sparrow and Tri-colored Redwinged Blackbird. Clearly, I had a few things to learn about names of birds and about everything else.

Finally, the day came for birding with Tom McCamant. Besides another “Bluebird,” a “Pigeon” and those unhyphenated sparrows and blackbirds I usually saw at Barnett Road, I saw 15 species, without binoculars. This was my first trip with real birders. Tom McCamant and his birder friend Jimmy Hicks sat in the front. We drove up Applegate Road. With the back seat of the car to myself, I could slide from the left to right windows with ease. Of course, I did not see all the birds my hosts saw, but it was an exciting morning. There were few houses along the road and no one hurrying up to the Applegate Reservoir. It did not exist. That meant the traffic was sparse and we stopped frequently, right in the middle of the road. I did not know anyone did that unless the person was experiencing car trouble.

Jimmy Hicks, who someone told me to address as General Hicks, was a retired Major General. Looking back and thinking of his demeanor, he must have been a career service member. By that, I meant he seemed to be a no nonsense kind of guy. A few years later, after Tom McCamant moved to Hubbard, Oregon, Gen. Hicks demonstrated his leadership in organizing bird counts. He was friendly, not without humor, and once into my upper teens, clearly guarded concerning his similarly aged girls. Little did he know that my interests lay elsewhere?

The day following the field trip with my adult guides, I stepped out the back door of my home and headed for South Creek. The creek was flowing higher than 5 weeks ago. The only choice was to wade to the other side. Since then, I have waded plenty of creeks, but while living at home, my Dad remarked that every time I went birding, I came back with soggy socks. Maybe my feet were soaked, but I had to get to the birds, and the best way to scout out the riparian areas was to get wet. This time, I saw six more species along South Creek, including “Audubon Warbler,” “Traill’s Flycatcher” and “Buzzard” to name a few. Audubon’s Warbler later would become Yellow-rumped Warbler, the flycatcher would have name Willow Flycatcher and the buzzard is and was the Turkey Vulture. Much later, the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature would receive a proposal to recognize the yellow-throated birds as separate species from the white-throated warblers. Once again, there will be Audubon’s Warblers in the Rogue Valley. Maybe. I also did not know I would later write a paper on the subspecies of Willow Flycatcher. My publication was even cited in the Congressional Record, the closest my name ever got to Capitol Hill. I may have mentioned Turkey Vulture in some publication, but not on purpose.

By now, it was more than obvious to my parents that I had become a single-minded looker for birds. I could not even eat chicken without commenting on the bones such as attempting to name them, explain their function and pontificate on what feathers might attach to them. It was a way to ruin a perfectly scrumptious meal had my parents not been such good sports. Truly, birds were on my brain. My dad, quite the tease, sometimes called me birdbrain. My parents also took me seriously, and bought for me my first real field guide, “A Field Guide to Western Birds” by Roger Tory Peterson.

Those little green, yellow, red and blue dime store books are probably dust in a landfill, but I still have that Peterson. It is actually in good shape, even though it has had years of use. One of the first things I did was study every page. All of the most colorful species, such as cardinals and grosbeaks and warblers, were in color. The remaining illustrations were in so-called black and white, but the shades of gray revealed much of what I wanted to know. I had already coveted the Peterson in the local library. From thumbing through a copy, I was surprised that there are so many kinds of birds. With my very own Peterson, I would not have to worry about any over-due fines.

I had mostly learned from schoolteachers that altering or emending books with pencil, or worse by ink is strictly taboo. However, my Peterson was different, and I began using a ballpoint pen by first checking the species I had so far seen. My mom, who would become the librarian in nearby Phoenix a few years later, winced, but I convinced her that the Peterson was after all my book. The firm black inky “X” marks from a pen were few at first, but as a new Rogue Birder, I had plenty of chances to check more and more species. However, for the moment in 1957, checking off new species seemed unimportant. Then, almost everything was new. Nothing was mundane. In May, migrants were arriving and each time I walked to either North or South Creek, I would see something new like Lazuli Bunting, Townsend’s Warbler, several kinds of swallows and species names not so recognizable such as Long-tailed Chat, Spotted and Brown Towhee and Solitary Vireo. Spring also brought Bullock’s Oriole. Little did I understand or could have predicted that the orange and black bird, a blackbird, would change its moniker from Bullock’s to Northern and back to Bullock’s for probably one last time. Much later, the reason for such changes, avian systematics and nomenclature would fascinate me.

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