The golden eagle swooped out of a blue oak 60 yards to our left and, as if it were leading our caravan, flapped its broad brown wings and towed us up the road that enters Tejon Ranch, one of Audubon’s greatest conservation success stories.
The early morning sun hinted at another warm day in the mountains three hours north of Los Angeles. The oaty smell of dry grass, the familiar rolling oak woodlands, and the sounds of rock wrens and ravens all reminded me that I was home. This is the California where I grew up and where I backpacked, terrain I know in my soul.
That was at the start of my monthlong field trip, meeting Audubon’s chapter, state, and staff leaders. I called the trip Boots on the Ground, and I made this trek to introduce myself to some of the people who give Audubon its unique local-national wingspan.
From towering Douglas fir forests in Portland to the nation’s largest old-growth cypress and tupelo gum forest in South Carolina, generous birding partners helped me hear and see in new ways. We counted California towhees along the Lower Arroyo Seco, just two miles from the Rose Bowl. We saw flocks of great egrets, white ibis, and brown pelicans on Mississippi’s Pascagoula River. I explored some of Audubon’s crown jewels: the Rainey Preserve in Louisiana, Beidler Forest in South Carolina, and Bobcat Ranch near Sacramento. Many of the centers I visited reflect their distinct regions—and Audubon’s commitment to building a new and diverse constituency for the environment.
But nothing prepared me for the River of Raptors—el Rio de Las Aves Rapaces—in Veracruz, Mexico, on the last leg of my trip. Reading about it doesn’t give you the true sense of vertigo you get from scanning the sky and seeing five pillars of spiraling Swainson’s hawks and turkey vultures. Looking at the horizon, they stood at 7, 11, 1, 3, and 5 o’clock. We were there for a peak moment—possibly 20,000 birds formed up in these five tornados of migration that took my breath away.
Behind me, atop a hotel in Xaljapa, spotters clicked their counters, registering birds by the hundreds. Clicking with both thumbs, the counters rattled away, churning through nearly 200,000 birds on October 14. A good day, the best of the week, I was told, but far from the 800,000 that is not uncommon.
We were there to honor 14 ranchers who have been participating in a three-year-long project with Pronatura, Audubon’s BirdLife International partner, to set aside more than 3,000 acres for woodlands restoration. Instead of letting their lands get ravaged by grazing—and cutting down the night roosts for their migrating visitors—they’ve changed generations of ranching practices.
I asked their leader, Rene Altamirano Acosta, why he made this change. “The day my daughter, Tonalli, was born I said to myself that I could continue to make a little money off my land or I could find a new, better way to make a higher income from the land,” he said. “I’m going to build a business for ecotourism.”
With that, Tonalli came up from behind Rene. She put her cheek down on top of his head and softly said, “Hola, Papa.”
“Hola, mi corazón [my heart],” he said, smiling.
For more on my recent tour, visit Boots On the Ground. For a slide show of some of the wonderful places I visited, click here.
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