Birding fanatic spins tales with wings

I have birds on the brain this week, thanks to Alan Contreras.

Past president of the Oregon Field Ornithologists and author of several books on birding in Oregon, Contreras has expanded his scope with a new book. “Afield” is a collection of engaging personal essays that detail 40 years spent watching birds throughout the American West.

Based in Eugene, Ore., Contreras details excursions to marvelous sites in Oregon, as well as Arizona, California, Texas and Alaska – though Washington, unfortunately, gets no coverage in these pages.

Still – from iconic landscapes such as Crater Lake and the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, to fairly anonymous locations up hillsides, down arroyos, and along ocean beaches – Contreras knows how to spot creatures with feathers.

He is, in fact, proud owner of two first state records of birds never before sighted in Oregon. Finding the exotic and adding to life lists is a special joy for birders, who are renowned for their willingness to travel long distances just to glimpse species they haven’t seen before. With this book, the common reader will begin to gain some insight into that particular brand of zeal.

But Contreras likes plain, gray birds, too. He confesses special affection for the American dipper and the common bushtit, “which resembles nothing so much as a dust bunny with a tail stuck in rather unprofessionally on one end.”

This whimsical style, and the humor that always seems to be bubbling just beneath the surface, makes “Afield” an exuberant read.

In addition, Contreras shares passages from accounts written by earlier bird watching enthusiasts. The language is a little more flowery, but he demonstrates unequivocally that the passion for this pastime extends over generations.

These observations over time have contributed enormously to science. In fact, that’s the motivation behind “Big Days” and other such bird counts. These events are not just species-sighting competitions. The observations that result contribute to our store of knowledge about migration routes, breeding patterns, and the effects of climate change.

So it turns out that bird watching isn’t all about birds, and neither is “Afield.” Contreras writes warmly about the people he’s gone birding with for more than four decades. Whether young or old, these are characters who are deeply interested in the natural world, and who have learned that keen observation and patience afford their own pleasures, whether or not the birds appear.

Then again, sometimes the birds show up unnervingly close. Contreras shares accounts of a hummingbird that thought someone’s mouth was a flower, and a woodpecker that mistook a person’s head for a tree stump.

He also talks about the attendant wildlife sightings that have made his outings even more of an adventure – he’s spotted bobcats, weasels, iridescent snakes and, in Alaska, the occasional herd of muskox, which he describes as “immense motile mops.” And, too many times to count, there are those inevitable mosquitoes.

Well, let me just start a buzz of my own: “Afield” is a lively, worthwhile book. Check it out.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest.