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A passion for birds

Birders are a passionate bunch, eagerly spotting and recording the numbers and types of birds they spy with their binoculars and often remarking on the social dimension of their hobby — the kind, gentle and friendly people they do it with.

You can find members of the Rogue Valley Audubon Society at “FeederWatch” gatherings on alternate Saturdays at Ashland’s North Mountain Park Nature Center and Coyote Trails School of Nature from November through March, where birdwatchers give themselves exactly 60 minutes to spot and record the species they see.

FeederWatch is a nationwide (including Canada) program, and Audubon members pool their data at Cornell University, which uses birds as indicator species for the whole environment.

“We have field trips and educational programs, because we want people to be aware how important a part of our environment birds are,” says veteran birder and teacher Vince Zauskey, a member of Rogue Valley Audubon Society since 1971. “They are an indicator of how healthy or unhealthy our environment is, based on the stability of populations, their gain or loss because of climate change or habitat decline.”

Members plan much-anticipated field trips to the wilds, such as Olympic National Park and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — and, says Sherrill Rinehart of Ashland, “We love to learn, to be around each other with our binoculars. It’s an absolutely fun activity, exciting, everyone very sharing, never competitive. I was on the Malheur trip, and there’s something really wonderful about it.”

There’s a constant whispered buzz as birders consult books and the internet on their phones to identify various species bouncing around the feeders and nearby tree limbs, noting the shape of beaks and the feathery distinctions between genders.

On a February Saturday morning at North Mountain Park, they recorded 19 species, including red wing blackbird (very common), dark-eyed junco, European starling, purple finch, fox sparrow, Brewer’s blackbird and Eurasian collared dove.

The now-common dove is a “very successful species” that arrived from southeast Asia in the 1980s and has exploded across North America, says FeederWatch guide Sooney Viani.

Birding is a wonderful way to bring families together with a common interest, says Viani. “It’s a parallel world that you can get pleasantly lost in, one that’s very accessible.”

Members eagerly share birding tales and, at this FeederWatch, regaled each other with the recent spotting of a not-so-common kingfisher, a bird that likes to grab small fish out of the water and fly up into the branches to have lunch.

The local Audubon chapter schedules many bird walks and outings throughout the year that are easily accessible and open to beginners. The club does a monthly, first-Wednesday bird walk at Denman Wildlife Area. The walks begin at 8:30 a.m. and end before noon. As with the FeederWatch program, the first-Wednesday walks have a citizen-science component, with species observed by walk participants being entered into the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory’s eBird database.

The club also organizes an annual count of American dippers on Ashland Creek, and it coordinates local count circles for the annual Christmas Bird Count, another nationwide citizen-science effort.

Holly Hubbard notes that “it’s very comforting” that most birding jaunts include people with years of study and who know everything about plumage, markings, migrating times and patterns.

“It’s peaceful and serene to be out there with friends,” she says, “and it’s an amazing diversity of feathers, beaks, everything you are looking at.”

Her husband, Alan Hubbard, adds, “I get such satisfaction being with like-minded people, excited and amazed by the variety of birds. It’s peaceful, like fishing, but I think birders are a little more talkative than them.”

To learn more about the club, including upcoming bird walks, see its website at http://roguevalleyaudubon.org/

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Larry Stauth Jr. / for the Mail Tribune Rogue Valley Audubon Society members look for birds at North Mountain Park Nature Center in Ashland.
Larry Stauth Jr. / for the Mail Tribune A white-crowned sparrow is spotted at North Mountain Park Nature Center.