Prineville bird watchers look to school teacher for answers

The sport of bird watching can be a fun and educational hobby to take up
Contrary to popular opinion, baseball is not the most popular sport - it's actually birding.
   Prineville's Chuck Gates is a real authority when it comes to birding in central Oregon, having a good dozen years experience in the field. It might be just a hobby, but it's a pastime that many people, including Gates, take pretty seriously.
   Teacher, lecturer and all round bird enthusiast, Gates is the person most folks turn to when they have questions about backyard birds, birding as a hobby or identifying bird species in general. Having grown up in central Oregon Gates graduated from high school in Culver and majored in biology education in college. When he's not out in the field tracking a bird sighting, he's teaching science at Crook County High School.
   As the facilitator of the local bird club Gates' enthusiasm for the sport is contagious. Nearly anyone who has had the privilege of attending one of his discussions or lectures on birds no doubt walks away with a new sense of appreciation for local ornithology.
   The loosely organized Prineville Bird Club meets on a monthly basis to discuss a variety of bird related topics. Primarily an educational club, the group currently boasts about 15 members. Meetings take place at the high school the second Tuesday of every month in room 114 at 7 p.m. Gates indicated that they are always open to, and eager to have, new members.
   "We're a club in the sense that we are a group of people with similar interests that get together and meet. But we don't have rules or dues or anything like that," he explained. "We try to keep an atmosphere of learning, and we're not elitists at all. We like to have people who don't know anything at all about birds. It's one of my favorite things to have new people and to be able to introduce them to the world of birds."
   In addition to the monthly sessions, the club also organizes field trips and special outings. The next group topic will focus on the best locations in central Oregon for viewing birds.
   The sport of bird watching in central Oregon essentially shifts every season, so there is a solid turnover of birds to the area, making it very exciting for birders. "There's always something new coming into our area and so there's always something new to see," he said.
   People commonly become interested in birding as a natural consequence of feeding birds in their own backyards.
   "Feeding birds is an incredible thing. It's something that has really ballooned over the last 10 years," Gates said. "It's a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States now. Something like 20 percent of the population feeds birds."
   Many bird enthusiasts are geared toward recording the birds that are sighted in the field, creating lists that build and build.
   Whether it's a life list (a list that encompasses a person's entire life experience of bird viewings), a regional list or a seasonal list, Gates is constantly competing to see how many sightings he can record in any given period. He says his life list contains 508 sightings while his Oregon list is at 412. He also keeps a county list currently numbering 234 sightings, which he indicated, is the second of all time, meaning only one other person has seen more birds in Crook County.
   "One of the most important things I do is track birds year to year. Last year I saw 210 birds here in Crook County, and that was the most birds I'd ever seen here before," he said. "That's a number that no one else's been able to do in one single year, and so that's kind of nice."
   Birding in Crook County is a good advocation for any hobbiest, and it's not a terribly expensive interest to pursue. The accessories aren't hard to come by - binoculars and maybe a tank of gas to get out into the habitat.
   According to Gates it's not impossible to see up to 100 different species during any single trip out into the field. "I tell people all the time that if you like wildlife this is the thing to get into because it's inexpensive and you're going to have success every time you go out."
   With the advent of Internet communication, birders are more in touch than ever. "With the Internet we have a thing called Oregon Birders On Line or OBOL where there's more than 500 people involved," he said. That's a lot more people than ever before reporting sightings and keeping track of the dynamics of how birds move around. There's a whole community available for folks interested in birds. Not only locally, but state-, nation- and worldwide.
   Bird watchers who make the effort to record sightings and communicate with other bird enthusiasts can be a real benefit to scientists who use the information to track environmental trends.
   "There are virtually no professional ornithologists, at least not enough to matter, anyway. Essentially all of the information comes from people who volunteer or people who contract with the government to do bird monitoring," he said. "So it makes it a rather unique thing to where you can get involved and actually make a real difference, a scientific difference. Whether it's watching birds in your own backyard or monitoring birds in your area."
   Gates is one of the featured speakers in the Crook County Library's ongoing series, The Nature in Central Oregon. Titled `Birds, Birds, Birds' the discussion will highlight local species including a slide presentation, best viewing areas, and equipment required for viewing. Scheduled for Wed., Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. the free lecture will be held in the Broughton room.
   "For many wildlife enthusiasts, whether your tracking large mammals or birds, the fun is being good enough to track these guys down and find them," he said. "Part of the thrill is the chase and some of the chases are pretty tough. I've been through some pretty bizarre situations to track birds myself. But it's a good excuse that gets you out of the house, out into the wild and you're going to have success and enjoy yourself every time."
   Gates indicated that he is available to answer questions, or to take surveys of private property should the owners like to know what bird species are living there.
   He encourages folks to go online to the OBOL site ( ~lb/obol.html) to report sightings of unusual species. He can be reached by calling the high school, 447-6900.