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Birding with Dogs 

click to enlarge Greg Gray and Lucy.

Photo by Greg Gray

Greg Gray and Lucy.

One of the things I enjoy most — besides birding and Giants baseball, of course — is spending time outdoors with my dog Aggie.

In a perfect world, I'd be able to combine two out of the three and look at birds with Aggie by my side. But our attempts thus far have been, well, imperfect at best. Birding is all about patience and focus, and there tends to be a lot of standing around. It's hardly a sprint, more of a stop-and-start marathon: I once arrived half an hour late for a guided bird walk at the Arcata Marsh, fearing I'd missed the group. But I found them 50 feet from the parking lot, scoping out something in a tree. That's the nature of the activity.

It's not, however, the nature of dogs, or at least my particular dog. Aggie might allow me 20 seconds to zero in on a Western tanager before a tug at the leash reminds me it's time to get moving. If that doesn't work, she'll stand on my toes, a technique that never fails. So, on we go. I don't mind following her lead — our stroll through the neighborhood or on the wooded trail near our house each morning is often the sweetest part of the day.

Though she may be short on patience, she excels at alerting me to the presence of birds. Her ears pop up like the timer on a frozen turkey and if I follow her gaze there's usually something of interest ahead, like a varied thrush or a Steller's jay. But thanks to a dollop of retriever in her DNA, her overriding instinct is to fetch the bird and drop it at my feet, so she has a nice purple leash she's seldom without.

Sometimes when I dash out to chase a rare bird, she's waiting by the door giving me those eyes (you know the ones), so I bring her along in the car. Here again, she's a work in progress: Last winter as we were driving through the Arcata Bottoms in search of a stumpy cattle egret and Aggie got a little worked up over the "cattle" part. My ears are still ringing.

But I believe synchronicity is entirely possible with dogs and birding because I've seen it in action. Local birder Greg Gray's dog Lucy seems an ideal birdwatching companion: mellow, patient and not overly concerned with other creatures. Gray says that's because he started bringing her along as a young pup and taught her the ropes. "It's a win-win: I get to bird-watch and she gets to sniffle and snuffle about in the great outdoors," he says, adding that her presence also provides a measure of protection when he's in Humboldt's less birder-friendly areas.

Protection may not be a primary concern of Humboldt bird guide Rob Fowler, whose dog Katniss weighs less than 10 pounds. However, she has patience in spades and when it's not tick season, the two of them cover a lot of ground at the local hotspots. I suspect Katniss has a bigger life list than I do.

Then there's Bongo. He's a young, strong guy with a lot of energy who leads an active life with his people. He's never met a bird he didn't like — or a skunk, or a bear. "Bongo has an independent mindset and a high prey drive," says owner Leah Alcyon. "So, he's really the best birding companion because we have to go out a lot and therefore, statistically, we should see birds!" Alcyon theorizes that an increase in Bongo's obedience training should lead to a corresponding uptick in rare bird sightings.

I suppose with some fine-tuning Aggie, too, could become a model birding dog. But I love her just the way she is. Her skills lie in other areas. She never lets spilled food sit on the floor for long and she dedicates herself to making every visitor to our home feel welcome. She senses, somehow, when things aren't going so great and is always there to make me feel better. She gets that I'm a work in progress, too.

And lately we've had some pretty exciting birding successes: We saw a beautiful indigo bunting in Blue Lake and my first Franklin's gull at Clam Beach. Granted, there were a few minor hiccups — I'm sure Aggie didn't mean to knock me into that poison oak — but it doesn't matter. I'm just incredibly lucky to get to hang out with my best friend.

And at least there weren't any cows.

Sarah Hobart (she/her) is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County.

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