Thursday, May 17, 2007
Under a sky bruised by rain clouds, Don Roberson pulls his Isuzu Trooper into County Supervisor Lou Calcagno’s Moon Glow Dairy Farm behind the Duke Energy Power Plant in Moss Landing. “There is almost no spot in California that has such a diversity of rare birds,” he says.
Roberson, Monterey County’s foremost birding expert, says the farm’s proximity to the ocean and Elkhorn Slough, its eucalyptus grove and freshwater ponds (which dot the landscape like ink spots), make for a one-of-a-kind habitat for birds. Back in 1990, Doug George saw a Smith’s longspur here, which was the first time that the small ground feeding bird was observed in California. In 1985, a little stint, a bird almost never found in North America, was spotted by John Mariana on the farm. “It was a vagrant from Siberia,” Roberson says.
Roberson stops the car, exits with his binoculars, scans the landscape for birds and listens intently for their songs. He somehow spots a tiny Rufous hummingbird from over 20 feet away, then picks a great blue heron out of the sky.
From a dirt road with an expansive view of the slough he promptly zeroes in on an Allen’s hummingbird and a group of pelicans with his spotting scope. He says that recently there have been a few yellow-headed blackbirds in the area. Right on cue, the black birds with yellow heads and bibs appear. “That’s a Monterey rarity,” he says.
Roberson is a rare discovery himself. He caught the bird-watching bug at 13 years old after reading about the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count in Reader’s Digest. That Christmas, he went out alone with a field guide and marked the birds that he observed on a piece of paper. “I remember to this day the birds that I saw,” he says.
Since then, his life has been consumed by birding (or near to it—he practices a little law on the side). Even his wildest story from law school is bird-driven. When school got out on a Friday, Roberson packed up a VW van and headed out of the Bay Area with some fellow birders to try and locate a snow bunting in Arcata. They drove all night but missed seeing it.
Then word came that a Sprague’s pipit, one of the least known birds in North America, had been spotted in San Diego. Roberson and his crew spun the van around and drove 20 hours south. Though they missed the Sprague’s pipit too, Roberson did make it back to the Bay Area in time to attend his Monday classes.
In 1979, the birder decided to move to the Monterey Peninsula for one primary reason. “I chose Pacific Grove to be by Point Pinos,” Roberson says, “because it was my favorite birding spot in the world at the time.” Now, Roberson’s favorite local birding spot is the Carmel River mouth. In 2001, in fact, Roberson married his wife Rita at the nearby Odello lagoon. Luckily, she is also a birding enthusiast. “We had someone in the crowd keeping track of all the birds seen during the wedding,” he says.
One of Roberson’s birding goals has been to see at least half of the 10,000 bird species in the world. He has traveled to far-flung locales like China, Madagascar and rural Mexico to make it happen.
These travels have led to some interesting situations. In the jungles of Ecuador, while scanning the canopy for birds, he almost wandered into a green tree viper. On a trip through a rain forest in the Central African country of Gabon, the birder and his wife came very close to a chest-thumping gorilla.
Roberson survived, however, and has spotted over 5,150 species to date.
Back in California, Roberson has a rivalry with a San Diego birder named Guy McCaskie that could only occur in the world of bird-watching. According to Roberson, there have been 630 different bird species spotted in California. McCaskie has seen 600, while Roberson has spotted 590. They routinely encounter each other in the field when word of a rare sighting surfaces.
Like all birding enthusiasts, the rivals have to go through a system of checks to confirm that they have actually seen a rare bird. According to Roberson, the sighting of a highly unusual bird in Monterey County would have to be verified by the county compiler, the Northern California sector of North America Birds Magazine and the California Bird Records Committee, a group of bird experts that peruse photos or written details about specific claims.
While admitting that he is not as competitive as he once was, Roberson is proud of the fact that he has seen 459 of Monterey’s 489 species, which is the county record.
“I want to be number one,” he says. “And I am.”
VISIT DON ROBERSON’s comprehensive birding website at montereybay.com/creagrus.