The golden eagle swooped out of a blue oak tree 60 yards to our left and, as if it were leading our caravan, flapped its broad brown wings and towed us up the road that enters Tejon Ranch, among Audubon’s greatest conservation successes in the nation’s most populous state.
The early morning sun hinted at another warm day in the mountains three hours north of Los Angeles. The oaty smell of dry grass, the familiar rolling oak woodlands, and the sounds of rock wrens and ravens all reminded me that I was home. This is the California where I grew up and where I backpacked, terrain I know in my soul.
That was two weeks ago, at the start of the second leg of my month in the field, meeting Audubon’s chapter, state, and staff leaders. I called the trip Boots on the Ground, and I made this trek to meet some of the people who give Audubon its unique local and national wingspan.
From towering Douglas-fir forests in Portland to the nation’s largest old-growth cypress/tupelo forest in South Carolina, generous birding partners have helped me hear and see in new ways. We counted California towhees along the Lower Arroyo Seco, just two miles from the Rose Bowl. We saw flocks of great egrets, white ibis, and brown pelicans on Mississippi’s Pascagoula River.
I met powerhouse chapter leaders from Biloxi to Charleston. Midway through my month-long journey, I met a dozen more chapter presidents from Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey at our Board meeting in Connecticut. All impressed me with their knowledge and passion. (Not surprisingly, I found lingering anger over a decade-old increase in dues from the chapters and a sense they felt they had been overlooked. But I also found that this cloud has largely passed.)
In Yolo County, south of Sacramento, past president Alison Kent and her chapter team showed me western sandpipers—and 47 other species. They also showed me how restored habitat, much of it in rice fields, holds such great promise. Most important, at day’s end she told me she would be rejoining national Audubon and that I should invite all of the other chapter board members who left the fold some years ago to do the same.
I’ve seen some ofAudubon’s crown jewels: the Rainey Preserve in Louisiana, Beidler Forest in South Carolina, and Bobcat Ranch near Sacramento.
I’ve seen centers that reflect their distinct regions—and Audubon’s commitment to building a new and diverse constituency for the environment.
At Seattle’s Seward Park, I saw Gail Gatton’s laser-like effectiveness at community outreach in one of America’s most diverse zip codes. Also in the Northwest, Meryl Redisch shared Portland’s 143-acre Douglas-fir forest. Her dynamism makes it clear why that Audubon chapter is such a major force for conservation across Oregon.
One day, as the sun was rising, I saw Golden Gate Audubon’s work with the city of San Francisco to restore wetlands just a mile from the Golden Gate Bridge and chapter members’ heroic efforts to save dunes habitat for western snowy plovers.
Diane Ross-Leech and Karim Al-Khafaji, president and board member, respectively, of the Golden Gate Audubon Society
I’ve met committed leaders like Dr. Patty Hagen in St.
Dr. Patty Hagen at her new Audubon center
Louis, who are humble and effective. At her new Riverlands Center, at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers near St. Louis, Patty introduced me to U.S. Army Corps of Engineer staffers who view Audubon as a reliable, trustworthy, non-ideological partner. And at Debs Park, in the Latino heart of Los Angeles, I met Ximena Gil, who takes the hands of third graders and shows them the place where, when she was their age, she used to hop the fence to wander in the 300 acres of the Debs preserve, to “dream the fantasies of a little girl.”
I saw the power of partnerships. Our largest partnership, with Toyota through the TogetherGreen program, has engaged literally hundreds of volunteers on “Project Protho” in South Carolina. Citizen scientists helped us learn that the prothonotary warbler had a summertime preference for the low brush of surrounding farmlands. The result: Norm Brunswig, the director of Audubon South Carolina, worked with neighboring landowners to preserve those nesting sites.
And I saw plenty of the faces of the future, like 15-year-old Ben Van Doren, who volunteers at Connecticut’s Greenwich Audubon Center, and 17-year-old John Garrett, a Southern Californian who was a Young Birder of the Year.
I asked Garrett why he’s so passionate about birding. “It’s addictive,” he said.
I asked: “What, the birding thing?”
“No,” he said. “The knowledge thing.”
And I saw the face of birding in Mexico. Gustavo Ramon methodically measures and weighs birds six days a week at a remote hawk-banding station atop rolling dunes near Veracruz (more on Veracruz in a minute). Gustavo is 22 years old and has three studs or rings in each ear, a lightning bolt carved into his gelled hair, and a flame for birds in his heart.
Some of the mostmoving stories came from the Moss Point Volunteer Center in Mississippi. After the BP gusher, Audubon became known locally as the organization that actually called volunteers back—more than 20,000 of the 34,500 who reached out, and counting.
Volunteer Nancy Garett paints a mural at the Audubon Volunteer Response Center at Moss Point, Mississippi.
Dozens of selfless teachers, citizen scientists, backhoe operators, and shop owners worked long shifts, making personal connections with people in Arizona, Maine, Wisconsin, and across the U.S.—all of whom wanted to come to the Gulf to help. While Audubon did put 2,000 people to work, there weren’t enough roles for everyone who opened their hearts.
But when we called them back and told them how to get more involved with their local Audubon chapters, to establish bird-friendly backyards, to work to protect habitat in their communities, we supercharged a new battalion of volunteers who will dedicate themselves to preserving America’s flyways.
One of the volunteers, 70-something Harold Preble, told me, “This experience has changed my life. I didn’t really get the connection between birds, their lands, and the need to move away from fossil fuels—but now I do.”
Another volunteer, Suzanne Schneidau, challenged me to set Audubon’s course. “You can’t think BIG enough,” she told me. ”That’s how much potential Audubon has.” I’ll take that challenge, Suzanne. We have a team of leaders who are up to it.
But nothing prepared me for the River of Raptors, “el Rio de Las Aves Rapices,” in Veracruz on the last leg of my trip. Reading about it doesn’t give you the true sense of vertigo you get from scanning the sky and seeing five pillars of Swainson’s hawks and turkey vultures. Looking at the horizon, they stood at 7, 11, 1, 3 and 5 o’clock. We were there for a peak moment—possibly 20,000 birds formed up in these five tornados of migration and took my breath away.
Behind me, atop a hotel in Xaljapa, spotters clicked
A raptor counter in Veracruz, Mexico
their counters, registering birds by the hundreds. Clicking with both thumbs, the counters rattled away, churning through nearly 200,000 birds on October 14. A good day, the best of the week, I was told, but far from the 800,000 that our Pennsylvania Audubon board member Scott Weidensaul writes about in his book Living on the Wind or that Susan McGrath describes in the September-October issue of Audubon magazine.
We ended our three days in Mexico at a celebración. “The winds of change always blow for the birds in Veracruz,” I told 150 people in the community center of a tiny town that houses the observatory run by Pronatura, Audubon’s BirdLife International partner. “But today they blow for a different kind of change.”
David at the celebración
We were there to honor 14 ranchers who have been participating in a three-year-long project with Pronatura to set aside more than 3,000 acres for woodlands restoration. Instead of letting their lands get ravaged by grazing—and cutting down the night roosts for their migrating visitors—they’ve changed generations of ranching practices.
Their leader is Rene Altamirano Acosta. I told him that I thought he was a man of vision, and he told me his family was angry that he wasn’t generating revenue from grazing.
I asked him why he made this change and he responded: “The day my daughter, Tonalli, was born I said to myself that I could continue to make a little money off my land or I could find a new, better way to make a higher income from the land.” (How universal is this story—about people wanting to find a better path and to preserve the environment for their kids and their grandkids?) “I’m going to build a business for ecotourism,” Rene added. “And we will harvest some of the trees for wood pellets.”
With that, Tonalli came up from behind Rene. She put her cheek down on top of his head and softly said, “Hola, Papa.”
“Hola, mi corazón (my heart),” he said, smiling.
For a slideshow of my trip, click on the screen below.