A Closer Look

Amanda Preece brings a high-powered spotting scope on birdwatching walks: “You can get right up into its nose and see every detail on its face.”

Summon up the stereotypes you’ve heard about birdwatchers being old fuddy-duddies sitting still. Now ditch that stereotype. Instead, think of a diverse group of about a dozen people, dressed in stylish outerwear from REI and girls wearing dresses with fashionable prints. They’re mostly wearing athletic shoes for a guided birdwatching walk at Asilomar State Beach.

It’s 10am on a Wednesday morning, time for a weekly tour of the avian life on and around beach. Natural Resource Park Aide Amanda Preece greets the group at Phoebe Hearst Social Hall of the conference grounds, and almost right away, the science – and some mysteries – begin to unfold. The group hasn’t walked more than 20 feet when Preece first stops them to point at a Californian scrub jay. It’s a hard bird to miss: Besides its vibrant blue feathers, it’s got a loud screechy call and it’s relatively big.

Preece talks about scrub jays’ habit of burying acorns – lots of acorns, by the thousands. The birds recover only about 30 percent of the acorns they bury to eat later. Why? Scientists aren’t sure, but whatever the reason, there is an ecological benefit to the birds’ forgetfulness.

“Maybe they are purposely leaving them behind, because if these guys weren’t putting acorns in the ground you wouldn’t have an oak forest, you wouldn’t have acorns in the future,” Preece explains.

It’s a common bird in the region, but through the eyes of a birdwatching guide, it’s a source of scientific insight into the forest ecology of the region, and also something beautiful, worth pausing for. The group stops and takes turns looking through binoculars to take in the scrub jay, when a tiny chirp – emanating from a smaller bird – enters the frame. It’s a pygmy nuthatch, which Preece explains is helping to combat a bark beetle problem by eating the beetles.

“That’s what they specialize in,” she says. “The beetles have been hurting a lot of the native pines in the area, so the nuthatches have been an enormous help in controlling them.”

While this group is focused skyward – there are 19 bird species in the area, not to mention 26 seabirds on the beach and throughout Asilomar’s dunes – most of Preece’s work happens on the ground.

“We mainly work to enhance the habitat by planting more native plants,” she says. “It’s this kind of fun element of being an avid birder and then having the ability to try and create a place for them to live and be successful.”

The onsite native plant nursery is where she works for most of the week. Preece gathers seeds seasonally for natives like lupine, coyotebrush and Monterey pine trees, helping to restore the Asilomar State Beach grounds.

“There’s a lot of ongoing work to keep the habitat up and running ultimately for the people, but also for the birds,” she says. “It’s not just about maintianing this beautiful conference grounds for the aesthetics and the visitors, but also the animals.

“It’s kind of an urban park, with visitors and cars – and we think, how can we get these things to cohabitate harmoniously?”

After five years working at Asilomar, Preece has learned a lot of the nooks and crannies birds prefer to hang out in, but she says every birdwatching walk is unpredictable, based on whether birds decide to visit. “It’s kind of fluid,” she says. “It depends on who shows up.”

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As this group walks on through the trees toward the ocean, they hear lots of birds but struggle to see them. There is the sound of pecking acorn woodpeckers, and high-pitched trills from dark-eyed juncos. Preece coaches the group members, who hail from as far away as Connecticut, on how to spot the animals.

Next they train their eyes on a round, plump body in a tree that they try to identify. They guess everything from pigeon to finch, when Preece finally intervenes and helps temper their frustration. “Birds can alter their body shape, they can control every feather on their body,” she says. “If they’re cold they fluff up their feathers, like wearing a down puffy jacket. So it’s hard to tell the birds apart by body shape alone.”

After an hour, the group makes their way from the trees out to the beach. The landscape changes and so does the wildlife, as seabirds – gulls and pelicans – enter the picture. Here, it’s easy to spot and identify the birds, unobstructed by trees, with fewer hiding places.

Even a seagull, sometimes seen as a pest, starts to look like an exciting sighting, with the right frame of mind.

“That’s my goal with these walks,” Preece says. “To make people notice everyday neighborhood birds we see.”

Sara Rubin contributed to this report.

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