Birding on the Golf Course
Hey BirdieMarch 2007
By Michael O'Brien
I love to play golf, but for different reasons than most golfers.When I play, my goal is to enjoy the natural beauty and fresh air the sport’s courses provide, rather than to achieve a low score. And as a birder, the thing that keeps me coming back is not the chance to score a birdie on a 300 yard par 4 hole, but to see the birds that surround the fairway leading to the hole. Birds love golf courses. In many urban areas, these oases may provide the only trees and grass in large enough quantity for viable populations to rest during migration or to establish breeding grounds. In semi-rural areas, golf courses provide a concentrated habitat in an otherwise habitat-rich environment.
Recently, I had the opportunity to play with life-long golfer and friend from the Wintu Audubon Society, Tim Boehme. Knowing we would be birding first, golfing second, we purposely chose to play on a midweek afternoon, hoping to find a course crowded with birds rather than duffers.
When birding on the golf course, always make sure to follow proper golf etiquette, such as pace of play and letting others play through.
We packed field guides, 8x21 “golf-bag sized” binoculars and notebooks. Oh, and we also took golf clubs, balls, gloves, and other golfing equipment, just in case we needed them.
The Golf Club Tierra Oaks was our links of choice. Infused with digger pine, valley and black oak, creeks, ponds and fields, Tierra Oaks provides habitat for a wide variety of birds.We were rewarded immediately. Two killdeer quietly sunned themselves adjacent to the first tee box. They were unphased by our movements and did not exhibit the expected wing dragging (usually only practiced when nesting) behavior, or the frantic kill-dee! kill-dee! called out when in danger. Although I thought I detected a bit of a snicker from one of the birds as I teed off into the rough.
Just as golf promises new adventure at each hole, we saw different species on nearly each tee box, fairway, and putting green. A gaggle of Canada geese with one lost juvenile greater white-fronted goose met us as we teed off on the seventh hole. California quail looted a backyard lining on one of the fairways. A red-breasted sapsucker darted from pine to pine along another fairway, searching for insects while we searched for a lost golf ball. On the ninth green, I mentioned to Tim that I was surprised that we had not yet seen any “Oregon” dark-eyed junco that permeate our region this time of year. Then, as we rounded the turn to the 10th tee, as if on cue, a flock of junco carpeted the grass, flashing white as they cleared out in respect for the approaching golfers.We also spotted plenty of the resident species acorn woodpecker. They love the pines, belting out their waka waka waka call as they fly from top to top.
During past golf outings at Tierra Oaks, Tim has spotted Cooper’s hawk hunting in brush piles skirting the course, yellow-breasted chat clucking and squawking in the dense brush along the creek that contours the 17th fairway, and raptors building nests in the surrounding tall trees. All in all, we noted 26 species this day.
Birding while golfing interestingly contrasts the sounds resonated by the two activities. I enjoy the challenge of identifying birds by sound before by sight. As I line up a golf shot, I am often distracted by the sounds of birds in the background. As I heard the thwack of the ball leaving Tim’s gold club head, I simultaneously heard the honking of a white-breasted nuthatch. Instinctively I called out the name of the bird as Tim made his swing. Needless to say, that golf shot resulted in a lost ball, but the nuthatch was delightful.
But that is what happens when golf and birding are mixed. Once I get started birding, I find it difficult to do anything else.What is that bird we just heard?What just flashed past your ball? Is that a red-tailed or redshouldered hawk high in that tree in the distance?Will that turkey vulture eat my ball because I killed that shot! Out come the binoculars and I wave on the people behind me to play through so I can spy the distant raptors. As the golfers drive by in their carts, they wonder about the goof with a bag of golf clubs and field guide, and speculate that I have perhaps discovered a new technique to shave points off my score. But alas, no. I am only adding to my count of bird species seen this day.