Even though he was sick and hardly up for a two-hour-plus car ride, Gary Lindquist has been a birder long enough to know that when you get a sighting of an ivory gull feeding on a seal carcass in Pismo Beach, you grab the camera and go.
Native to the Arctic Circle, the way -wayward bird is a rare sight in California, and context is everything to a birder. If, say, you happen to see an ivory gull while vacationing on a sheet of ice, no big deal. But if you find yourself on the Bakersfield Riviera, shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of tourists wolfing down fish and chips as they gape at the lost bird, the moment becomes magical.
So there, just yards from the successful completion of his quest, was Lindquist -- having been driven by his patient wife, well-acquainted with the moment's-notice nature of her husband's preoccupation. But then on their way down to the shore, he let his focus waver, stopping to chat with a birder he knew from Fresno, who, like Lindquist, beat a path to the coast for a glimpse of the delicate white creature.
That courtesy would prove costly: For while he was shooting the breeze, the gull took wing and was gone, presumably in search of the nearest iceberg.
"We waited there for hours. When I see the lady I stopped to talk to, she still apologizes to me to this day.
"You get heartbreakers all the time. We walked for two days in Florida once looking for a La Sagra's flycatcher. Walked and walked and then had to go home. We never found it."
Indeed, the distance between disappointment and discovery in the birding world is a knife's edge, said Lindquist, a retired small-animal veterinarian who traveled 7,300 miles around the Midwest last year, just one of several birding trips he took in 2013.
"We made a trip to New Mexico in July to see a rufous-necked wood rail. It's the only time it's ever been seen in the United States. Birders, we chase things around."
Lindquist realizes most amateur bird watchers can't -- and don't wish to -- match his level of dedication. But frankly they don't have to. Kern County, with its sprawling and diverse terrain, is chock-full of interesting birds. If you'd like to attract a few to your backyard, Lindquist has some suggestions he'll share during a presentation Tuesday before the Kern County Audubon Society. The public is welcome and admission is free to the photo-heavy PowerPoint presentation.
"People usually have to shut me off at these talks. It's like someone said once, 'You ask me what time it is and I'll tell you how to build a watch.' I wear people out all the time."
But Virginia Dallas-Dull, who books speakers for the local club, can assure potential attendees that every effort is made to get the audience out by 9, no matter how freewheeling and entertaining the discussion proves to be. Dallas-Dull heard about Lindquist, an avid birder for 50 years, from a member who saw a presentation he gave to the Tulare Audubon Society.
"I could tell he was really personable when I talked to him on the phone," the coordinator said. "He'll take questions and show photos, which is usually a big component of the presentations."
Indeed, Lindquist said taking photos, a passion for the last decade or so, has changed the way he approaches birding.
"Most birders are listers -- they list birds they've seen. As such, it's a pursuit. They see a bird, check if off and are thrilled. But with my camera, I'll stick around a few days.
"In New Mexico, for the rufous-necked wood rail, we met a guy who drove 18 hours, saw it walk out of the reeds, checked it off, and drove 18 hours back."
Lindquist's fascination with birds began during study hall while he was a school boy in Arkansas.
"I've always been a nature geek, and collected anything that crawled, flew -- snakes, insects. I saw a bird field identification guide at school: 'Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds.' Any time Dad would give us a break from farming, I would grab the field guide and my binoculars -- I had the cheapest you could buy at Sears -- and I taught myself to be a birder."
After college, Lindquist and his family moved out west, first to the Bay Area, and he discovered California is a "phenomenal" place for birds.
"We've got the biggest bird list, but I love the Northwest -- Washington, Canada."
The decision to open his own veterinary practice relocated the Lindquist family to Visalia years ago. As far as birds go, he calls the Central Valley "fair" as a whole, with the exception of Kern County, which "covers so many habitats and has around 400 species."
And there's no better way to explore the area than on the regularly scheduled Audubon field trips, said Dallas-Dull, who has been a member of the local group for about seven years.
"You really get to know Kern County when you're a member because you go to places you didn't know existed."
Lindquist also endorsed the club, part of the nonprofit National Audubon Society, founded in 1905 for the study and conservation of birds.
"People don't look," Lindquist said. "They drive but they don't open their eyes to the amazement around them. Take a natural history class at the local college, get an inexpensive pair of binoculars and a field guide and go to your local park or your own backyard."