(Originally published in the Jan-Feb issue of the Albatross, Vol. 41, no. 3)
Recollections of an SCBC Mole
By R. Morgan
January 9, 1996 marked the 4Oth anniversary of the Santa Cruz Bird Club's first formal meeting (and my own 32nd anniversary with the club). Eighty-four people crowded into the music room of the old public library. It would have been eighty-five if a certain little kid in Soquel had known about it. But that didn't happen for some years.
A hermit thrush introduced me. Being bird-crazy form birth, and having caught banding fever from a banded female pintail my dad had shot, I was running an illicit backyard banding operation, using homemade rings of plastic-coated wire in various colors. One day a hermit thrush wandered into the barn and was duly sent on its way more colorful than before. Next year (?) the thrush ended up in the barn once again, but this time it was wearing a real band in addition to my non-regulation one.
To cut the story short, the thrush turned out to have been banded just a few doors down the street, at the residence of club members Claude and Jessie Hooper. I met them some time later, and discovered we had something else in common, having recently built and put up flicker boxes, both of which were occupied by flickers in the first year and thereafter by kestrels or starlings. The Hoopers had just moved in a couple of years before. By coincidence, the club's Junior Activities officer Mabel Terry and her husband had moved in next door at the same time, so I met them too.
Being Christmas Count compiler that year, Mrs. Hooper recruited me for the 1962 count, which in my case was basically a glorified walk up the road. That was still the era of low-key CBC's, when total species count hovered around 120 instead of 190. Soon after that, my new-found neighbors took me to my first SCBC meeting (it also happened to be Mr, Hooper's year as president, which he modestly described as "scraping the bottom of the barrel").
I remember the venue of this first meeting as a quaintly Victorian little room, with steeply rising tiers of wooden seats, the kind of place you might go to take in a string quartet, or hear the local vicar hold forth on Seneca, or watch Dr. Jenner remove a spleen All of which seemed quite fitting, since I took everyone else in the room to be of grandparent vintage at least. And the situation remained more or less that way for some years, which was just fine with me; I felt right at home, a carefree babe among the sages, blending into the woodwork as best I could, taking it all in, and best of all not having to keep my ornithological proclivities in the closet for fear of derision from my own age-mates, whose conversation was not half so interesting in any case.
Sadly (to me), subsequent meetings resumed at the Branciforte Junior High School, where all of the club's meetings had been held except for the inaugural one in 1956. Unlike our present home at the City Museum, this venue never struck me as being very homey. But the people and programs made me less mindful of the penitentiary atmosphere of the place. Some programs that especially impressed me included one by Dr. Morejohn on his seabird research and several by Bill Anderson, who also very generously took me along on uncountable birding adventures near and far, and to whom I am forever indebted for rubbing my nose in botany until it took.
Some of the other pre-1970 characters I remember include Leavitt McQuesten, who always wore a suit and tie and whose $1.50 albatross trips on Malio Stagnaro's boat became a summer tradition and helped put us on the map (is this how Ms Shearwater found us?); Stanley Mythaler, who never failed to bring a fancy home-made bird feeder to every meeting as a door prize (Does anyone out there still have a Mythaler bird feeder?); John Strohbeen, who had a now-extinct Santa Cruz County endemic butterfly named after him (Anyone seen a Strohbeen's Parnassian lately?); mammalogist and SCCM curator Dr. Glenn Bradt, who gave me my first real job (as opposed to farm labor at 50 cents an hour), preparing bird specimens for the museum; Harry Smith, who as former president of the Illinois Audubon Society seemed to be looked to as the authority on bird matters. But he seemed too remote a figure for a Timid Woodland Creature like me to pester.
In fact nearly all of my interactions during the first years were with the women, probably because it was they who went out of their way to peel me off the wall. The two Violas were central SCBC figures: prolific observer/reporter Viola Washburn, still going strong in her once birdy Escalona neighborhood (you would enjoy her booklet about the club's history up to 1981, if you haven't already), and Vi Anderson, the cheerful, ubiquitous factotum who had a sly crocodilian kind of wit and said things like, "I'll dance at your wedding." Likewise central were the two Dorothys: lovable-eccentric-par-excellence Dorothy Lilly, and efficient meticulous ahead-of-her-time CBC compiler Dorothy Hunt.
But it was Florence Haas who had to endure most of my pestering during the first few years. Her particular combination of patience, competence and quiet enthusiasm was just what I needed. It didn't hurt that she also had one of the birdiest yards I've ever seen in my life. How many hours I spent at her window, intent as a cat on the 3-ring bird circus outside, I'll never know, but it was never enough. I'm surprised her husband didn't kick me out. The medium-size lot on Cunnison Lane in Soquel had a little orchard, an oak-lined ravine at one end, a sunny garden most effectively designed for quail and the like, nest boxes, ample bare ground with ample feed, and all sorts of traps. Mrs. Haas had a flourishing (and legitimate, as opposed to mine) backyard banding operation, along with other hard-core SCBC members including Harry Smith, Elaine Reinelt, Vi Washburn, and the Hurlberts This is what the hard-core birders did then, as opposed to collecting egg sets, or study skins, or chasing vagrants, or whatever the next hard-core vogue will be (charts and graphs? We can always hope). Each of these and any number of other approaches adds its own piece to the overall picture.
One of the major events in my first couple years with SCBC was the annual meeting of the Western Bird Banders Association, hosted by club members at the (then) new Cabrillo College. The academic godfather of the group was Dr. Mewaldt from San Jose State, known for his research on White-crowned Sparrows. There was also some buzz over an up-and-coming Wunderkind (it could have been Rich Stallcup for all I know) who eventually showed up, looking very collegiate. A major shift took place in the 1970's, gradual at first then accelerating, as the membership got decidedly younger and the founding wave of members faded from the scene. At about the same time, birding itself was becoming more structured and high-powered and macho, the last banding stations closed down, the county bird records file was begun, vagrant-hunting emerged as a new sport, and listing was rearing its ugly head as never before. But the club stayed as warmly familial as ever, if not more so.
I feel more lucky than old to have been on hand to see both incarnations, and luckier to have known so many of the people who made it all happen. And still are – don't look now, but just maybe our beloved SCBC is already into its third incarnation. Another 40 years down the road we'll all be sitting on our 21st Century rockers wondering where all the birds have gone and reminiscing about the Suddjian Era. Ahh, the good old days...