In search of Nelson's Sharp-Tailed Sparrow

J's birding habit is totally the fault of my friends Lisa and Eitan, who we stayed with in San Diego. They came to visit us in North Carolina a few years ago, spotted some owl in the woods behind our house, and he was hooked.

So when Lisa emailed me and asked if J would like to do some birding with them when we got down there, I didn't even have to ask him. "Yes," I told her. "Yes, definitely."

Although Lisa initially got him into it, Eitan, her husband, has become a pretty expert birder. At least I think so, not that I know what I'm talking about, but he's got birding gear and he's really good at knowing where birds will show up on any given day. How he does this, I have no idea. Point being, J was excited to go out with him and add a bunch of west coast birds to his "life list."

I decided to participate Saturday morning when they woke up at 7 a.m. and went over to the Tijuana Estuary where Eitan claimed there was likely to be a rare bird sighting because of the high tide that day. Everyone was pretty excited about it. I was mostly concerned with whether or not I'd get to have a cup of coffee before heading out (I did).

Neither J nor I have hung out with many birders - me, because, you know, I don't birdwatch, and J basically goes solo. But I guess when a rare bird might possibly show up they all come out of the woodwork, and when we got to the estuary there everybody was, binoculars raised, standing near the water, pointing and whispering, some of them giving dirty glances to dog walkers who strolled by and dared to ask what was going on.

A few of them knew Eitan and Lisa. They said a quick hello, and then ushered the newcomers over and pointed out the bush where this little orange-ish bird, Nelson's Sharp-Tailed Sparrow, was hiding.

Every few moments someone would exclaim in a hushed manner, "There he is!" and the group as a whole would refocus their lenses on the spot where some lucky soul had just seen the elusive creature perching.

Needless to say, upon encountering the scene, I was overjoyed I'd come along. This was humanity at it's most interesting and amusing. The birders, most of them middle-aged or older and a good deal more men than women, wore brimmed hats and had various items - binoculars and bird books and God knows what else - attached to their belts. Some wielded cameras with huge lenses and took painstaking efforts to snap the perfect photo. They wore khaki and tennis shoes and some wore vests. Some were friendlier than others but they were all united in the cause.

At one point that morning Eitan received a text message from one of the other birders alerting the group that he'd just seen the targeted bird somewhere else in the estuary. I imagined all of them flipping open their cell phones at that exact moment and shouting out "Nelson's Sharp-Tailed on the northern perimeter!" or something like that and realized that this was an organized effort beyond any I'd ever experienced.

Everybody eventually saw the sparrow, and I've got to admit I felt almost proud when I heard J softly say, "Yup. That's him. I see him. That's definitely him," and then heard the others ask encouragingly, redundantly, "You see him? Pretty cool, huh?"

They drifted off after a while. A few seemed satisfied with their morning's work and others wandered off into the park for more. One couple told us giddily that they were going "Tanager hunting" (a Hepatic Tanager, a red bird not typically seen on the California coast had been spotted a few weeks earlier in the area).

So I gave up my position standing on the side of the road, audience to a group of birders who, honestly, couldn't have cared less about my presence there. That was the thing, the reason I could have spent all day, all week, with them. Seeing people so focused on achieving something that doesn't really make sense to anyone but birders had somehow become more than simply kind of funny to me - now it seemed inspiring.

Also, I saw a picture of that bird and it's pretty cute. I mean, nothing to write home about, but I'm sure if you woke up very early that morning fervently hoping to catch one quick glance of a creature that takes such pains to hide itself for most of its life, eventually spotting that unmistakable orange face peeking out from behind a branch, must be, somehow, so incredibly worth it.