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It was two Sundays ago, International Women’s Day, when I finally received my long-awaited Carr Fire Scholarship Auction prize – a birding trip with friends to Gray Lodge Wildlife Area.
Dan Greaney of the Wintu Audubon Society donated his time and expertise to provide the trip. And Doni Chamberlain, founder of A News Cafe, provided a catered lunch.
Despite the chance of rain, it was a sunny bright morning when the eight of us met up early, giving each other elbow bumps in lieu of handshakes, a bow to COVID-19, before Californians were ordered to stay in their homes. Dan passed out Audubon Society T-shirts which we fawned over. He also agreed to take the helm of my trusty chocolate brown Pilot, which I have named Peregrine, after the falcon. Kirsten was copilot and my two other friends and I took the middle seats while the back was taken up with my daughter, Ava, and her best friends, DaXi and Ellie. Brave Dan was the only male among us!
While the girls chattered in the back, playing car games, the adults spoke of politics and pandemics. We drove past the Woodrow Wilson State Park and through the tiny town of Gridley before reaching the Gray Lodge Wildlife Refuge, one of Dan’s favorite birding locations. We were a bit late in the season for ducks, he explained to us, and a bit early for songbirds. But we were full of faith and fun. Ready for anything.
Dan was equipped with a box of binoculars (the good kind!) and handy pocket reference guides which we carried with us throughout the day. A seasoned middle school educator, Dan had scouted the location for our group a week before and had our first surprise ready for us in the parking lot. He set up his scope, pointed at a tall eucalyptus tree lining the waters edge. A large nest was visible in the tree. Looking through the round rim of the scope we could make out what appeared to be a cat sitting in the nest. On closer examination we recognized the round head and tufted “ears” of a Great Horned Owl. We could not believe our luck as we watched her move and adjust herself in the nest.
It seemed nothing could be as good as this very first find, but moments later we were finding our second nest. Hanging mid-willow-tree on the other side of the parking lot, the nest looked like a limp and dirty sock. But as we watched and waited, a tiny bird flitted her way towards the nest, pausing often enough to disguise her intent, a Bush Tit!
We meandered slowly down a road of the refuge, stopping to find several huge monochromatic flight feathers of the turkey vulture, discovering pieces of an American Coot in the roadway, with the white tip feathers still intact, and most marvelous find of all, a sparse and wiry long white feather belonging to a Great Blue Heron. Dan explained to us that in years past these birds would have been killed for these feathers, which were used for women’s hats.
As we walked, we stopped innumerable times to spot, wonder over, and mark down the names of bird species (a total of 48 throughout the day!) We discovered a piece of coyote tail along the road, poked coyote scat, which seemed to be full of crayfish shells, and fished a water fern from the marshy areas to examine up close. The girls were in heaven, and so was I.
Lunch was chilly and perfect. Under the Great Horned Owl’s tree we feasted at picnic tables, unpacking the meal Doni had prepared. And what a meal. As beautifully and elegantly packaged as it was delicious. Vegetarian wraps, chock full of pesto and cheese; pasta salad with chunks of artichoke and tomato; grapes, veggies, chips, and the most perfect fudgy walnut-topped brownie you could imagine. We ate and lacked for nothing. On the ground around us we found the Great Horned Owl’s pellets, filled with fur and feathers. Skeletons of what looked like lizards lay nearby.
Late day we drove home . . . .thoroughly sated with beauty.
I couldn’t have imagined a better International Women’s Day than the one I spent with four women I both enjoy and admire, three girls who are growing into greatness, one incredible amateur ornithologist, and forty eight different species of native birds.
Utmost thanks to Dan Greaney, retired middle school educator and amateur ornithologist, for spending an entire day with us, sharing your expertise and awe. Your humility and curiosity are contagious. And deepest appreciation to Doni Chamberlain, who donated lunch for eight, catered from her kitchen with the excellence, attention to detail, artistry and the sheer amazing flavors she is famous for. You are one in a million. I can’t believe I won this all with my meager auction bid. What a bargain! Let’s bid this one up higher in next year’s Carr Fire Scholarship Auction!