White-Headed Woodpecker

Chewaucan River
Chewaucan River

by Scott Sadil

I’m pretty sure it was Haig-Brown who pointed out, somewhere in his many books, that we are any of us elevated in some way each time we learn the name of something, be it it bird or flower, insect or mammal or tree, that we encounter in the natural world.

I suppose we could argue, on the other hand, whether any of our lives are really made better because of our capacity to tell a killdeer from a snowy plover. After all, as one of our favorite presidents famously put it, if you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all – a rhetorical position that makes it easy to justify whacking the bejesus out of the few remaining old growth forests still standing.

And, if you’ve never taken the time to learn the difference between, say, a kestrel and a kite, or a whimbrel and a willet, much less seen or even only heard the fabulous canine barking of the spotted owl, who really gives a lick if they’re suddenly gone from the face of the planet?

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that fly anglers, especially trout anglers, are very often avid birders. And not just because they keep their eyes out for swallows, wheeling and diving during mid-day mayfly hatches at the famous Mother Dog hole. Or seagulls plucking Green Drake duns from a slick as if pelagic red crabs had washed upstream with the recent tide.

Birds, bugs, water, and fish are all part of the riparian setting where most trout stories unfold. And if the fish aren’t feeding, there are worse ways to spend your time than trying to spot and identify birds, be they tanagers, orioles, or the lazuli bunting.

I was moved to consider my long history spent gazing at birds in the West, especially those along the Pacific Flyway, while out last week in the eastern part of the state looking for an isolated population of the Great Basin redband trout. The redband (Oncorhyncus mykiss newberrii) is a subspecies of rainbow trout; confined over geological time to discrete drainages no longer connected to the Pacific, the redband evolved with the capacity to live and, in favorable epochs, thrive in desert streams fed by mountains just high enough to provide year-round runoff from snow melt and springs. Even in the best of times, however, it can be a tough go for these fish – and now, with wildfires damaging sparse, pine and juniper forests, many desert redband populations are at risk of extinction.

It didn’t really feel like a fishing trip. Twenty years ago I camped with my youngest son and a friend of his in a grove of Ponderosa pine above the river; the redbands were plentiful and feisty, eager to rise to a dry fly, perfect sport for youngsters and a father who, at the time, could never get enough. 

But this time the river seemed too shallow, too warm, the banks in many places stripped of riparian growth and beaten down flat by cattle, the hillside trees ravaged by recent fires.

I couldn’t bring myself to get serious about fishing.

But in the marsh below the mountains, where the river eventually vanishes into a broad alkaline basin as wide as the eye can see, I spotted a flock of dark wading birds, something I had never seen in this country. I spun the truck around and got out for a look: White-faced ibis, not a rare species, but a bird I had only encountered in the tidal mangrove flats in Baja California’s Magdalena Bay.

That will get you thinking about migration, speciation, and time.

On the way home, I took a route I had never driven before, winding through the edges of national forests that faded into rangelands and desert five thousand feet above the sea. High, dry, and lonesome. In a campground tucked into a stand of Ponderosa pines, as big as they grow, I heard some kind of woodpecker, its loud thumping passing intermittently through the trees. I walked its way – and there it was, out on a naked limb, a woodpecker species I had never seen before. Uncommon, says Peterson – which seems about perfect for a bird I’ll now look for whenever I’m in the neighborhood of those desert redband trout.

Thirty-five years ago, Gray’s Angling Editor Scott Sadil spotted the only Scott’s Oriole identified during the annual San Diego Christmas bird count.