When Parker Flickinger walks anywhere, an invisible radar bubble reaches out from his brain, probing the sky and the trees; reaching across lakes, marshlands and fields.
“Those two specks circling in the sky are American white pelicans,” he said, during a recent walk in Diamond Creek Park in Reno. A high-pitched call reveals the presence of a red-wing blackbird proclaiming its territory; a rustling of leaves along a creek betrays the movements of a shy bushtit; and a flash of gold and a glimpse of a long, pointed tail is enough for him to identify the swift passage of a barn swallow.
Flickinger, a birder and member of the Lahontan Audubon Society, is also a VISTA volunteer. It was in that capacity that he worked with the Regional Transportation Commission to create the Birding By Bus program. The Reno/Sparks metropolitan area is home to lots of parks, each hosting a plethora of bird species. Many of those parks are within walking distance of RTC RIDE bus stops, making it easy for residents to rendezvous with their feathered neighbors.
The quarantine effect
The Birding by Bus effort isn’t just aimed at avid bird watchers, Flickinger said. The rides also may help introduce other locals to a pastime that has gained converts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the nation, last year’s lockdown gave quarantined residents more time to notice the avian activity around their homes. Backyard birding boomed.
People suddenly paid attention to creatures they previously had taken for granted. That led to a lot of questions directed at birders.
“A lot of people definitely have been asking more questions about the birds and that they see in their backyards,” Flickinger said. Some folks may want to expand their view. “…Birding by Bus gives people a chance to conveniently get to the parks, especially those who don’t have access to a car or can’t drive,” he said. “The program fosters inclusivity, and you don’t have to know anything about birding to start.”
No experience necessary
The tools are simple and inexpensive, Flickinger said: “Anyone can do it. All you need is your eyes, ears and your brain. The more you see, the more you will learn.” Once engaged, a good pair of binoculars and a guide to Nevada birds get novice birders to the next level.
His passion for birding began about six years ago, when he and his family took a tour in Mexico led by a professional bird watcher. Birding wasn’t the main purpose of the excursion, but Flickinger saw about 400 species on that trip and he got hooked on the hobby.
These days, he is a walking encyclopedia of bird lore and characteristics. During the 90-minute walk around the lake at Diamond Creek Park, he identified 29 species, including the pelicans, blackbirds, grebes, killdeer and great-tailed grackles. Red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks wheeled in lazy circles above the lake; flocks of geese glided in the creek, with hosts of fuzzy goslings in flotillas behind their mothers.
The pastime is about more than listing names in a notebook, Flickinger said.
Dinosaurs and hieroglyphics
“There’s always something new and unexpected,” he said, and there’s a calmness that comes from watching the birds going about their business as they have for millions of years.
At Diamond Creek Park, a flock of Canada geese exited the lake and took a walk through a nearby field, their heads bobbing atop their long necks visible above the grass. “There they go,” Flickinger said. “Moving like that, they look like the dinosaurs they once were, like the pack of raptors in the ‘Jurassic Park’ movies.”
Formal birding trips aren’t required; a birder is always on duty.
“Sometimes you see species in unexpected places,” he said, “like the family of great horned owls that nests in the rafters of a Home Depot gardening section.” A drive past Rancho San Rafael Park also reveals a large congregation of unusual-looking birds in the dog park area.
“Those are white-faced ibis foraging on the ground,” Flickinger said. “They are a common spring and summer resident here in Washoe County. You will often see a big flock of them flying overhead as they travel between wetlands such as Carson Lake and Swan Lake. But it is a rare and real treat to see a large group of over 10 birds foraging in fields. The ibis really seem like they stepped out of a panel of Egyptian hieroglyphics.”
An avian menagerie
The Birding by Bus program is self-guided, but Flickinger said the Lahontan Audubon Society would like to add events with guides available to offer advice and encouragement to fledgling birders. In the meantime, he said, the activity is free and open to everyone. You don’t even have to watch the birds, although they will be watching you.
“There are a lot of parks in this community that people may not be aware of,” Flickinger said. “It’s like the Emerald Necklace (park system) in Boston, with so much green space within the city limits. The Truckee Meadows really is a place where you can go tailgate birding; there’s a menagerie of birds in every park.
“The Lahontan Audubon Society and RTC hope that Birding by Bus helps promote appreciation and awareness of the resources we have in our community.”