"Birders have bladders of iron."
Mike's khaki fedora tilts back, and he smiles as he says this. Without lowering their binoculars, others nearby testify.
Mike is Mike Matherly, vice president of the San Diego Audubon Society, and we are on a Saturday-morning field trip. It's been four hours since any of us have seen a bathroom, and I couldn't agree with him more.
Four hours earlier...
A high, white sliver of overnight snow glistens along the ridgeline in the dawn's patchy light. I park the Wolfmobile where the paved road ends, pull a ski cap over my ears and join the others. Morning is the best time of day for birding, and the January cold here in the moderately wild Pamo Valley north of Ramona is bitter but bearable as the group...
"There's the golden eagle!" someone shouts.
I look to the north. To my novice eyes its outline against the overcast sky is simply an imposing silhouette pestered by smaller birds. Speaking in an almost reverent hush, the birders describe the movements and colors of the eagle's flight.
Hardcore birders have eyesight equal to pilots, seeing details the average Joe does not. From one point here on the single-lane road they can turn and spot multiple species of birds. Most wear wide-brimmed hats, keep journals and carry illustrated field guides. A few shuttle high-powered scopes mounted on tripods.
Just the facts: Orinthology, or as it's more commonly known, birdwatching, is the top recreational activity in the U.S., with nearly 70 million adults spending time each day to admire a bird. There are approximately 10,000 species of birds on the planet, with this country claiming 1,000 and San Diego alone home to 500.
This number, plus San Diego's agreeable climate, makes it one of the most attractive destinations for birders from around the country.
Mike has his telescope set, and is exuberant to share with me his view of a flock of wild turkeys a quarter-mile across the valley. I see nothing but trees and a few meandering cows, so I lower eyeball to lens, and sure as shit, there they are. Ben Franklin would be proud.
Ten minutes later, we are heading down a service road on foot under a canopy of branches when the group stops on a bridge. I hear someone say, "Acorn woodpeckers," and arms begin pointing to the trees. Being a Stooge man, I briefly consider yelling, "Look at the Grouse!" but resist. Birders are possessed of a genial, sophisticated humor, but I shan't push my luck.
Mike calls me to his scope to view a Western bluebird. I focus on a bright, multi-hued male perched next to his less colorful mate and can hear people discussing possible sightings of lark sparrows and cedar waxwings.
There are 18 birders in our group today, and as they walk ahead on the trail, I have an opportunity to talk with the leader of this trip, Bill McCausland. Bill has been organizing and leading these more-or-less weekly outings for 20 years.
"Birders are of a more highly educated group of people," he says with a distinct Minnesota accent. "We have quite a variety. Some have really good ears, and they can identify birds by sound."
More birders join us and inquire about the possibility of spotting a Lewis's woodpecker that is rumored to have been counted here.
"Well, Christine thought that's what she saw," Bill replies. "We tried to re-find it twice. So Ken called and said, "Well, should we count it?' and I said, "Well, she was a little uncertain.' She wanted to re-find it. I don't know, may be a little iffy. I don't know if they're gonna count it or not. She felt that that's what she saw, ya know, but she's got a good eye."
"Have you ever been surprised by a bird you didn't expect to see?" I ask.
"Oh sure, that's the exciting part about it, that you get rare birds. Several years ago we found a gray flycatcher, and that's sort of a rare find in the wintertime. Stuff like that, that's a pleasant surprise. Like when we get a Lewis's woodpecker-that's a good find."
Witnesses are requisite for sightings of rare birds, though.
"People are a little skeptical, and anybody that finds a rare bird needs to define where they saw it so that others can go there and verify it," he adds.
Bill and I catch up with the group at the cars, and the decision is quickly made to trade the sheltered silence of the Pamo woods for the open sky and stiff breezes of the Ramona Grasslands, another popular birding area just the other side of town. I ignite Wolfie's engine, and our caravan of 15 cars twists up and out of the valley, less like a family of partridges and more like the ready-to-roll tornado chasers in Twister.
For the first time all day the clouds lift completely as I walk along Rangeland Road with Claude Edwards, a professional birder. He is mustachioed and energetic, sharing knowledge readily. And knowledge he has, being a wildlife biologist with the San Diego Natural History Museum. As he jots notes, Claude tells me we are here looking for prairie falcons, ferruginous hawks and American kestrels.
A shout goes out four cars ahead: "Mountain bluebird!"
Claude cuts running.
"It's in the scope," someone says.
I take my turn eyeballing this beautiful bird as Claude explains the differences between Western and mountain bluebirds, and imitates their calls to illustrate. Mike is here as well, scanning the horizon while aiming his scope.
"You find a lot more raptors here," he says. "They come from Southern Canada, and they'll winter out here on these grasslands. As soon as late March comes, they head back for the Great Plains."
Birding isn't about volumes of knowledge or a total of finds, he explains.
"Just the fact to get to where you're going is the excitement, and the beauty of being out of doors-that's what birding is all about. I always thought birding would be the dullest thing in the world. You never know what you're gonna see."
He looks me in the eye.
"It's always an adventure."
The San Diego Audubon Society guides roughly 50 field trips a year throughout the county. All you need to bring is an interest. The 2007 San Diego Bird Festival kicks off Feb. 7 at Mission Bay Park, and it offers a flock of workshops, speakers and overnight trips. Focus your binocs on www.sandiegoaudubon.org.