Big-time birder Craig Hohenberger discovers diversity and otherworldly highs in fleeting down-to-earth moments.
Thursday, April 26, 2001
The calm is so pervasive it''s unnerving, like a storm is about to hit. Then you hear it. It starts as a murmur, then rises slowly, and the unmistakable honking of geese becomes audible. Louder, and the honking is joined by the quacks of ducks and the calls of other birds.
Looking to the southern horizon, you see a black cloud begin to form. As it moves closer, you begin to see that it is not a single cloud after all, but hundreds of thousands of birds coming down the home stretch of their northern migration.
The sound continues to rise in volume until the cacophony of a million voices threatens to overwhelm you.
Suddenly the sky is falling. Geese, ducks, Lapland longspurs, snow buntings and more drop from the sky, cascading in droves to the ground. It''s breeding season, and the Brooks Range is more happening than New Orleans during Mardi Gras.
For Craig Hohenberger, a Carmel Valley resident and one of Monterey County''s most respected birders, witnessing this spectacle almost 10 years ago was a monumental experience. Even now, he refers to it as a touchstone in his life. "You never forget those nice moments," he says. "It''s such an enriching experience for a nature enthusiast."
Hohenberger has made it his mission to share these kind of moments with others. As a teacher at Carmel Middle School, Hohenberger has exposed hundreds of students to the outdoors. He also co-founded the Ventana Wilderness Society''s Big Sur Ornithology Lab (BSOL), which has captured, measured and released over 50,000 birds of 160 species since it started in 1992. In addition, Hohenberger serves as president of the Monterey County Audubon Society. On top of this, he still finds time to spend with his family.
The world of birding is almost as rich with variety as the world of birds. Since binoculars and do-it-yourself bird guides became widely available to the general public, the hobby has exploded. Anyone with eyes or ears can do it, and the abundance of public lands on the Central Coast gives birders myriad sites to visit.
There''s a unique sensation when you have a "birding moment." That moment is usually the spotting of an elusive species you''ve seen in a bird guide and have been searching for ever since. Sometimes it can be a case like Hohenberger''s Alaska experience, where the whole of your surroundings just overwhelms.
In either case, the result is a sense of euphoria, where the hairs along the back of your neck stand up and everything seems right with the world. Some have dubbed this sensation a "birdgasm." At least some of the high is linked to knowing that you''ve got a good story to tell.
Like hunters, fishermen, and anyone else working with nature, each birder has birding stories that have turned into personal legends to be told and retold a hundred times. Just call it the "I-caught-one-THIS-big" syndrome. Hohenberger participated in one now-famous sighting. During the 1999 Bird-a-thon, he was part of a group at Bird Rock in Pebble Beach when one member shouted "I''ve got an albatross!" It turned out to be a short-tailed albatross, one of the rarer seabirds in the world. The bird hung around Point Pinos for another two weeks, giving area birders a chance to flock to the spot for a glimpse.
One of the hottest local spots to bird is in Andrew Molera State Park. Partly because of the wide variety of habitats found at Molera, over 370 different species have been spotted there. One can hike through open meadows, oak groves, redwood forests, poison oak and willow thickets along the Big Sur River, coastal scrub and open beach all within a few miles. The park also sits along the Pacific flyway, along which millions of birds journey each year between their wintering grounds in the tropics and their breeding grounds in the Arctic.
These reasons inspired Hohenberger and UCSC professor Jeff Davis to found BSOL in Molera. Each year, interns at the lab set up mist nets to band and record information on birds passing through the park. On busy days, the nets have been known to catch upwards of 200 birds in five hours.
This level of activity has attracted birders from around the world hoping to catch glimpses of some of the more than 300 species that frequent the area. Visitation to the lab--by birds and by birders--usually spikes around late April. Not coincidentally, this is also the time for BSOL''s annual Bird-a-thon. The 2001 version will be held on Saturday.
Each spring, birders from all over compete in the Bird-a-thon for prizes and prestige, raising money for BSOL in the process. The idea is similar to walk-a-thons, except sponsors pledge money on a per species basis. Awards are given for several different categories, including seeing the highest percentage of a county''s bird list and seeing the most birds while not using a motorized vehicle.
Although the event will no doubt be attended by many hardcore birders, there is also room for participation by beginners as well. Those who can raise $1 per bird may join a group count led by BSOL staff and interns, yielding a chance to bird with the pros. Last year''s group saw 124 species, a one-day record for Molera.
"The Bird-a-thon is not only a fundraiser but a way for us to bring attention to the work of BSOL and Ventana Wilderness Society," says Hohenberger, "but there''s also that educational component, where people can bird with the interns and see birds they might miss on their own. And you always find surprises."
The Bird-a-thon is not the only place where Hohenberger is educating fledgling birders. He teaches at Carmel Middle School, where he uses a 10-acre restoration area to give his students hands-on experiences with nature.
"We''ve been collecting data on the physical and biological aspects of the site over the last five years [during the restoration effort]," he says, "so the kids can see how the biodiversity goes up when you enhance the habitat."
Though his life list consists of nearly 2,000 species (still only a fifth of the world''s known species), Hohenberger remains dedicated to birding, particularly the opportunity it gives to journey to new spots around the world.
"I love traveling," he says, "and it''s not just about the birds. Birding to me is a vehicle to learn about yourself and the world we live in--and that''s both cultural as well as the natural. I''m just as passionate about learning about people. The world is becoming homogenized. We talk about preserving species, but you don''t hear a lot about preserving culture. All these arts and languages, whether they''re written or spoken, we''re losing them. The more you can preserve the individuality of our societies, the happier I am."
A fitting statement from a connoisseur of a bird world that, existing in a myriad of nearly 10,000 different colors and song, is the very definition of diversity.
Details on Saturday''s Bird-a-thon can be found at the Ventana Wilderness Society''s Web site, www.ventanaws.org. Info on birding in Andrew Molera State Park can be found at Craig Hohenberger''s site, www.carmelmiddle.org/hohenberger/ molera. You can also e-mail him at mailto:calidrisalba@ jps.net.