We spent last weekend in the San Joaquin Valley looking at birds. Thousands and thousands of birds — snow geese and white-fronted geese, shovelers, pintails and teals, killdeer and meadowlarks, avocets and ibises, stilts and wrens, red-winged blackbirds and red-tailed hawks, tundra swans and sandhill cranes.
Part of the experience of entering into the world of the birds is the sound. Actually: part of the experience? Visiting these places where tens or hundreds of thousands of migrating birds have gathered is mesmerizing, electric, sometimes overpowering, utterly enveloping and at moments gives a hint of what this place we live was like before we began the project of radically reshaping it.
Here are three snippets of that sound. The first is from Super Bowl Sunday, when Kate and I found ourselves virtually alone — except for the birds — in the 10 square miles of the Los Banos National Wildlife Refuge. After that clip are a couple from the Merced National Wildlife Refuge — the crazily energetic stylings of a marsh wren and a surprise overflight of about 300 sandhill cranes at midday on Valentine’s Day.
On the outskirts of Patterson, California, a town on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley about 75 miles southeast of Berkeley as the crow flies (or about 100 miles as the Dodge Grand Caravan drives). Kate spotted the sign as we were pulling out of a fast-food and gasoline mall along Interstate 5. The only place I’ve seen my family name on a sign before was North Dakota (on a Hallmark shop in Grafton and on a travel agency in Grand Forks that’s nationally known for its tours of Norway). Just in passing: The Patterson city website, which notes the burg is known as “The Apricot Capital of the World,” says the town had 11,000 people in the 2000 Census. The signs entering town now say 20,000-some. Big swaths of big new homes have appeared on the western fringe of the city; in fact, driving into town, the border between what we were calling “new Patterson” and “old Patterson” (with downtown eateries like Hank’s Harley’s Grub Shack) is pronounced.