I was on my way to the library one day when I flushed the flicker lapping ants from a grassy, gravel driveway. It flapped onto the side of a telephone pole shrieking in alarm as it went, its tangerine flight feathers flashing. I took a few cautious steps forward, and it scuttled around the pole to get a better look at me, its crimson mustache contrasting sharply against the soft buff of its face. It shuffled uncomfortably a few times before exploding into flight, white rump startling me along with its sharp cries. I had to know what this bird was called.
I found the answer in one of the books that eventually found its way into my field bag, Harry Nehls’ Birds of the Willamette Valley, the only book on the library shelf that didn’t completely overwhelm me with a multitude of similar looking birds. Soon I was puzzling over field guides to insects, mammals, trees, and wildflowers. I enjoyed the challenge of identification, but I kept running into a problem regarding the plants.
Most of the trees and shrubs and flowers I was coming across were ornamentals that weren’t profiled in the guides to northwest plants, and the books that did feature garden plants and street trees left me frustrated and confused (remember this was before the accessible Sibley Guide to Trees) until I took the advice of one of the bird books. There was a passage that suggested birders have a local patch to visit frequently, one that is a bit more natural and rougher round the edges than one’s backyard or neighborhood is likely to be. I could think of only one place.