Barrels and Bluebirds (February 2006)
The Fetzer Winery looks typical as you drive up the winding approach past towering valleys oaks. Just beyond these old trees with white paint on the lower six feet of trunk vineyards stretch the length and width of this portion of the upper Russian River Valley in Mendocino County, California. Winery buildings are soft colored stucco. Nearby bungalows and a modern inn house overnight guests. We've come for a weekend in February, a family gathering from separate parts of the state.
The vines are still bare, the ground wet from heavy winter rains. Clear sky, fresh air, from all sides there is bird sound. Yet Fetzer's not a typical winery. Most vineyards can be disappointingly sterile. Here birds abound. Fetzer's gone organic. They have overcome industrial agriculture's fear of insects. And a result one evening I watched two dozen glorious bright Western Bluebirds strung along one overhead wire. These guys are insect-eaters, and cheaper than pesticides.
Fetzer has reservoirs where irrigation water is stored for the dry, sunny summer month. There's a large garden for herbs, vegetables, flowers. The Russian River is lined with ancient oaks and dense undergrowth. Above the rolling vineyards on the rocky hilltops stand clusters of live oaks and blue oaks. They're stout, crooked cousins of the stately valley oaks below. Before agriculture came here, this whole valley would have been a chaparral of scattered oak and head-high grasses. What we see now is a much-altered remnant.
Fetzer is hosting a wine and chocolate tasting this weekend before Valentine's Day. Dozens of people attend, mixing the grape and bean, patriotically saluting the red, the white and the brown. An R & B band plays upbeat songs inside a tent aglow from the bright sun overhead. Out beyond the buildings, we walk through a twenty acre garden of flowers and shrubs. A Northern Flicker screams from far up in an oak. Hermit Thrush, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Fox Sparrows flit through the brush. Overhead the trees hold Yellow-rumped Warblers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. The oak-loving White-breasted Nuthatch can be heard keening over the juicy bugs he's finding in the heavily furrowed bark of the huge valleys oaks.
Our family group is staying in the oldest house on the property. Nearby an even older oak was felled by a recent storm. White-crowned Sparrows and California Towhee hustle among its branches and broken twigs. A sister oak, at least two hundred years old, still stands erect and tall nearby, and near its crown an Acorn Woodpecker laughs. Not far away another answers. These gregarious woodpeckers live in a colony and keep in touch with a call like a giddy laugh. But these are hard-working birds, drilling endless holes in numerous tree trunks, then hammering a single acorn into each aptly-sized hole. Several trees around the house and garden bear their perforations and impregnations. Woodpecker, hole, acorn. A natural trinity.
I take a short bare-footed walk cross an empty field to a small earthen dam. I try to remember how long it's been since I've had a real bare-footed walk. Years ago when our kids were smaller we'd camp a few days every August. We'd go to Camp Wente operated by the Boy Scouts further north in Mendocino, near Willits. By late summer the ground was hard-baked, the sharp rocks obvious. It was always slightly slower to walk bare-footed down to the lake, but much more pleasing. Layers of cotton, leather, cement, asphalt - too much between our own skin and that of our mother earth. It is perfectly efficient to walk down a wooden dock in shoes or even bare-footed and climb into a laser sailboat on the lake. But to wade out through mud, feeling water plants between your toes, bumping against a small fish, feeling the bottom ooze give way before your weight, then rise in a muddy cloud around your ankles - that is not just a walk from point A to point B. That is a communication between earth and earthling that pre-dates internet, factory, even agriculture.
On the way to the lake, a streaky little brown bird rises from before my feet. I never would have picked him out from the plants, the straw, the earth. In alarm he sings out his name and he crosses the field, "pip-it, pip-it, pip-it." The minute he makes a silent landing he becomes once again invisible.
On the reservoir is a small group of Bufflehead and a Coot. Typically the Bufflehead gradually seem to drift to the far side of the water. The Coot ignores me and boldly works a nearby patch of weeds along the dam. Up in the hillside oaks a Kestrel is kiting, hanging above an open patch of grass. Then he folds his wings and falls softly into a perching position on an oak limb. It is a warm, sunny sunset, yet it is quiet. I look around. No raptors. Behind me in the center of the valley there is a soundless swirl of dark Turkey Vultures, all slowly coming into the roost trees alone the river. Looking around more carefully I see a small white speck on a slender sapling across the lake - binoculars disclose a Loggerhead Shrike. That explains the silence of any small birds that might be about. The shrike is a relentless hunter. I watch for five minutes and he doesn't even seem to turn his head. But there will be no evening call notes from towhee, phoebe or sparrow at this reservoir this evening.
After a fine dinner and a bit of wine, we walk off some of what we've consumed. Near the former stable building (not a guest house), we first hear, then see the Barn Owls. The only sound from the birds is their scratchy call, a guttural throat-clearing rasp. Then they fall silent until two circle one of the buildings. It is always a shock to see such a large bird flapping vigorously making not a single sound. It is easy to see why small light-loving creature so fear the owls, the stealthy night hunters.
On Sunday morning we all walk up the slope of a hillock that rises about fifty feet from the valley floor. This hill is ringed and crowned by oaks, their lower branches trimmed off. Beneath the arching trees are gravestones, the oldest dated from the late 19th Century when Hopland really was a center for growing hops. In those days nobody would have picked this area as a future center for producing expensive wine. Here the hot, itchy, tough work of growing and harvesting hops when into production of a more pedestrian quaff of ordinary beef. On the hilltop we run into some locals - a long line of Wild Turkeys picking out the best acorns from the litter on the ground. There is a Nuttall's Woodpecker, another White-breasted Nuthatch, a Western Scrub-jays. The short list says: oaks. Of all the beings on this hill, our family, the dead, the living, it is these oaks that are most lasting, that are the basis making most of the smaller creatures possible. We are just passing through. In every way, and for ages, the oaks are truly rooted here. Would that no later human ever visits this spot and finds no oak to lean against, no acorn in the duff.
February Hopland bird list: