A Birder’s Farewell to the East Coast

Cheers to the cardinals, the chickadees, the jays, and yes, even to the grackles I pretend to ignore.

On a recent cold, dreary morning, I watched a Northern Cardinal belt out song after song from the top of my neighbor’s tree in an attempt to attract a lady friend.

Normally, the bird wouldn’t have held my attention for so long despite its impressive vocals and searing-red plumage. Cardinals are ubiquitous in the Eastern United States, even in a busy Brooklyn neighborhood like mine.

Yet lately I’ve been savoring their presence—almost to the point where I’d call it binging. I’m preparing myself for a cardinal drought, because after a lifetime of living in the Northeast, I’m moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ll have a new coast and city where the rent is too high and the chance of seeing a Northern Cardinal is so low that even one such report would light up rare-bird alerts.   

So, I’m taking stock of all the Eastern species I've taken for granted over the last three decades. Of course, I’ll never forget the lifers such as the Great Gray Owl my dad and I chased in Rowley, Massachusetts, or the Snail Kites I spied patrolling a southern Florida marsh. But the common yard birds like cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, and Blue Jays have a special place in my heart, too. I’ve come to think of them as the birding version of comfort food: The chickadees are my mac and cheese, and the jays are my chicken soup. They fill me with nostalgia and are therapeutic in times of need.

In California, I’ll find an entirely different set of yard birds to brighten my mood. The Black-capped Chickadees and Blue Jays will be replaced by Chestnut-backed Chickadees and California Scrub-Jays. And I’ll even get Steller’s Jays and the occassional Mountain Chickadee, if I stray a little farther from the Bay Area.

And I'd be remiss to not mention that California is arguably the best birding state in the whole country. I don’t know any other birders there, but the internet makes it easy to find hotspots before forging friendships. I’ve already scoped out my new home on eBird: Rodeo Lagoon in the Marin Headlands, Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, and Fort Mason in San Francisco all have an impressive number of species, so I’m putting them at the top of my list. Meeting local birders will be the next step; once my NYC Audubon membership run its course, I'll swap it for a Golden Gate Audubon Society one.

Recalibrating the meter on what’s common and what's rare will be a greater challenge. On my last visit to California, some birders helped me identify a batch of Elegant Terns far off in the distance. The species was a lifer for me, but it's a regular visitor to the state. I also had a good laugh while gawking at a flock of Black Turnstones—only to find out that all the other birders were chasing the lone Ruddy Turnstone on the beach. I'd barely glanced it, given its typical presence on Eastern shores.

I’ll also be keeping an eye out for the West’s more iconic avians, from California Condors to Yellow-billed Magpies, Northern Spotted Owls to Tricolored Blackbirds. But none of them will compare to the reliable Northern Cardinals back East. Heck, I’m even getting teary-eyed thinking about Common Grackles. They might call the West Coast the best coast, but its grackle game sure is weak. Guess I'll have to settle for the sporadic Great-tailed sighting in Golden Gate Park—the view will be worth it at least.