Wednesday the Rabbi Went Birding

Today we took our former rabbi on his first birding trip.

You know those moments — maybe real, maybe in a dream — when completely unconnected  parts of your life suddenly bump into each other?

Birds! Judaism! All I needed to fill out the circle was to find a literary agent standing amidst the sandhill cranes. Stranger things have happened.

In any case, Sam and I had long planned to introduce Rabbi Steven Chester to birding now that he is basking in the leisurely fields of retirement. It just happened that the date we picked came two weeks after the start of my new job at… Golden Gate Audubon Society.

It was a gorgeous day — sunny, warm, not even a breeze until the mid-afternoon. We’ve been on birding trips in the past where it was so cold and foggy outside that the kids refused to get out of the car to see any birds. Today was the opposite of that.

Sam and Rabbi Chester / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We saw:

  • Lots of ducks, including cinnamon teal, which were Rabbi Chester’s favorite. These rich brown birds look like someone dipped them in cocoa or cinnamon.
  • Stilts, which I love for their dramatic black and white contrast. (It doesn’t hurt that this also makes them easy to identify.)
  • TONS of black-crowned night herons. Now, I’ve seen individual night herons before. But they must have really liked this patch of marsh in Merced National Wildlife Refuge, because there seemed to be another heron every five feet or so. At one point there were nine within our field of vision, perching among the reeds, motionless as gargoyles.
  • Sandhill cranes! Snow geese! Tundra swans! Giant birds that are 100 percent guaranteed to impress novice birders, or your money back.
  • A bald eagle flying overhead as we ate lunch – wow.
  • And, as we packed ourselves into the car at the end of the day, a flock of snow geese soaring in formation like Blue Angels over our heads.

Black-crowned night heron / Photo by Ilana DeBare

How many snow geese can you count? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Rabbi Chester had a great day. He brought his point-and-shoot camera, which has an impressive zoom, and practiced wildlife photography for the African safari he and his wife Leona plan to take later this year. Cranes and herons are certainly not as exotic as lions or elephants, but they are a heck of a lot more accessible.

So what’s the news behind this blog post?

Rabbi Chester: For those of you who know him, I’m happy to report that he’s enjoying retirement. He’s contemplating several writing/photography projects. At Leona’s request, he has joined a group that goes bowling once a week! But he’s also looking forward to returning to Temple Sinai as a congregant once he’s done with his year of staying-away-to-give-space-to-his-successor.

Me: With two weeks under my belt, I’m loving my job at Golden Gate Audubon. So far I’ve managed to set off the burglar alarm and program my voicemail greeting as the incoming message for the whole organization. But beyond those little bumps, it’s all good. My colleagues are really talented. The office is funkily nice. My job involves a variety of different tasks, some of which are familiar (press outreach) and some of which involve learning new skills (managing the web site and social media).

I tagged along on a GGAS birding event for kids at Lake Merritt  last Saturday and posted photos on the GGAS Facebook page. You’re welcome to view them here. It wasn’t the Central Valley, but hey — we saw a night heron there too, as well as a lone tufted duck that somehow makes its way to Oakland from Eurasia each winter. And this was just a ten-minute walk from BART and City Hall.

One beauty of birds is that they are such an easy way for anyone to connect with nature, even in the middle of a city.

Sandhill cranes / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Snow geese in flight / Photo by Ilana DeBare

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4 Responses to “Wednesday the Rabbi Went Birding”

  1. John Mangels Says:

    Sounds like a great trip (with great photos!)! I may be getting out birding again myself (3rd trip in 4 weeks scheduled Friday). I’m not familiar with the Merced refuge (likely Cosumnes Friday).

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      We haven’t been to Cosumnes in years but I recall it as a great spot for Sandhill Cranes. Actually, living in Sacramento is when I first got interested in birding — it is so well positioned with birding sites to the north and south.

      For this trip, we took the Gustine exit off of I-5 (Hwy 140) and then drove south for about ten miles on the Santa Fe Grade. It’s an old railroad grade that is now a gravel road going through wetlands and a few duck hunting clubs. Lots of waterfowl along the sides of the road, including black ibis. Then it’s about eight miles east to the Merced refuge, which has a nice driving loop and pretty reliably has cranes, geese and swans in the winter.

  2. Patti Says:

    Thanks for the Chester update! I’m no bird expert, but this time of year is especially nice for bird-viewing along Highway 132 from 580 into Modesto as I’m heading out there for rehearsals. Lots of white egrets, not sure whether they’re the snowy or cattle variety, and the occasional blue heron. Much more fun to concentrate on their loveliness than on the idiocy of one’s fellow drivers.

  3. Judy Says:

    What a great idea to take Rabbi Chester birding! Your photos were breathtaking. Thanks somuch for sharing themd with us!

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