Episode 3 of Season 2 — Hosted by Emily Harwitz.
About this Episode
Oakland’s Lake Merritt may be a few miles from the nearest redwood forest, but this tidal slough is not only a bustling community space for locals, unhoused neighbors, artists, musicians, and roller skaters—it’s also a whole wildlife refuge abundant with native and migratory birds. For would-be birders, it’s a gateway. We went birding (aka birdwatching) right here with naturalist and artist Clay Anderson. Turns out he practiced both passions working many seasons at Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Listen and learn about what it takes to be a birder, nature journaling, and birds of the redwoods.
Music and sound design by Nhu Nguyen and Anni Feng.
Read Episode Transcript
Follow Save the Redwoods League on Instagram @savetheredwoods
About our Guest
Clayton Anderson (he/him) is a Naturalist working in the field of Environmental Education for the past 15 years. Enchanted by the natural world and its history since he was a boy, becoming a Naturalist was a dream come true.
After graduating from San Jose State University, he landed his first job as a Naturalist with LoveLife Environmental Education Program. Since then, Clay has worked for several environmental concerns including California State Parks, East Bay Regional Parks and Alameda Resource Conservation District.
He currently works for Golden Gate Audubon Society as the Youth Program Manager.
When he is not introducing the youth to the magic of nature, he enjoys birding and creating art. Whether speaking through a microphone or painting with a brush, Clay loves the work he does and is always looking to promote and educate others about the wonders of the natural world and its cycles.
Episode 3: Bird is the word
[Theme song intro]
Emily: Welcome to Season Two of all go if you go to Save the Redwoods League podcast, we’re building community and illuminating how Californians from all walks of life think about and experience nature and conservation in the redwoods and beyond. All go if you go because when we explore together in community, the experience is all the more powerful.
Emily: Hello, world. Here we are at episode three. I’d like us all to begin by taking a deep breath and letting it out. It’s March 2022. And I think we can all agree that times are tough right now. I hope you’re all taking good care and that you and your loved ones are safe and dwell. Right now. I think many of us are looking for the warmth of community, a sense of peace and some beauty in our lives.
Spring has officially sprung here in the northern hemisphere, which means lots of things. sunnier days, blooming flowers, baby animals, and birds. Right around now migratory birds who flew south for the winter are coming back north to roost. That means that now’s a great time to see not just the birds themselves, but the super cool nests they built and my favorite fluffy little nestlings and the wet scraggly ones too. Which brings me to today’s featured activity: birding.
When you picture a birder, who do you see? There is a right answer, and I’ll give you a hint. First, imagine a bird you’ve seen or heard recently. Now if you can go find a mirror. The answer is, it’s you! On today’s episode, here to tell us all about birding, is Clay Anderson. Clay is a birder, naturalist environmental educator, illustrator and artist. A former leader of Outdoor Afro, Clay currently leads youth programs for Golden Gate Audubon Society, teaching kids about environmental stewardship and how the natural world works. And he runs seasonal bird counts and nature journaling classes. Those are for adults too. Plus, Clay also has some exciting art projects going on, which we’ll get to hear about later in the episode.
OK—time to get going and head over to Oakland where I met up with Clay to ask him, what even is birding?
Clay: So, birding is a process of delineation. You’re just kind of basically, you know, looking at things really closely and learning their habits—these organisms, you’re learning their habits and what they are, what they do. And also the interactions, which is really what I like to see, how things are interrelated. And so these animals are, in a way are kind of indicative of what’s going on in the environment. And if we’ve got animals that are doing what they naturally normally do, then you’ve got, you know, you’ve got the right kind of environment, your environment is healthy.
[Faint background sounds of a dog barking, people chattering as they walk by, bird tweets and chirps, seagulls squawking]
Emily: And where are we and what are we looking at?
Clay: So we’re sitting here at Lake Merritt, right next to the Rotary Nature Center. is Lake Merritt is actually technically the entire lake is the oldest wildlife refuge in the United States. And most people don’t know that was founded in 1870, the oldest recognized wildlife refuge in the US. And it’s actually cared for and managed right now by the city of Oakland.
Emily: That’s so cool! Right in the middle of Oakland.
Clay: Right in the middle of Oakland, yeah.
Clay: So it’s a great it’s a great opportunity and an intersection for people and wildlife. And most people don’t even realize how lucky they are to have a refuge right at the center of a high urban area like this. Of course is one of my favorites because it does have a lot of birds. We have a lot of the birds you would find normally in the San Francisco Bay. And it is also part of the Western West Coast flyway. So we get a lot of birds from up in Alaska and the Arctic that come down and spend the winter here and overwinter here. And then they go back but there’s also a plenty of residents and they’re all very interesting live endemics—birds that are shorebirds and water birds, and there is a difference —and so it’s a really cool spot. And we also have breeding birds here, like I said, residents, and we also get some of the oceanic birds too, so it’s really nice.
[Jazzy musical Interlude]
Clay: So I started birding when I was a little kid when I was sitting in my backyard. [Seagull squawks loudly and repeatedly nearby. Emily laughs.] Let him steal the show for a minute.
When I was a little kid and just kind of watching the overall, we usually overfed our dog, and so the food would sit in the bowl and here we come all the flew house sparrows, and they would come and mop the bowl and eat the food and stuff. And you just, I was just sitting watching them and I realized I started recognizing a pattern. And two birds would be in the bowl, only two, while all the birds, the other birds, were crowded around. And those two birds would jump on the rim of the bowl and fly away with their food. And another pair would jump in, get food, and so on and so forth. So there was an organization there. So it’s kind of a social structure. So I realized there’s more to this than just mobbing and wild animals. There’s something going on here. So that’s when I started getting into birding. I was like, I don’t know, eight or nine years old.
Emily:And where was this?
Clay: This was in my backyard in Chicago, Illinois. I’m originally from Chicago. And I’ve been out on the West Coast for about 40 years now.
Emily: What do you need to do birding? Like do you need special gear? Do you need to study up before you get out there and start looking at them?
Clay: No, it’s a totally entry level sport, if you want to call it that. Some people will just call it an activity. But depends on how far you want to take it. The sky’s the limit. But yeah, all you need is your curiosity, [seagull squawks loudly] desire to Learn, and there’s tons of information out there already, for people to get on the internet and books, etc. And if you’re lucky enough to get a pair of binoculars, which is pretty easy at about 100 bucks, that will get you—really that’ll start to pull you in. So yeah, it doesn’t take much doesn’t take much to get into birds. And anybody can do it.
Emily: Do you have any recommendations for like a nice field guide people can take out with them?
Clay: Oh, god, yeah, there’s tons of that stuff. I mean, I follow both digital and paper—oh wow, right there.
Emily: Who’s that?
Clay: A little song sparrow. Yeah, the Sibley Guide is the hottest thing out right now. But National Geographic does a great job. Peterson guide is still out there. And they all have different approaches. So even if you got all three of them be great. Merlin, the Merlin app you can get, and All About Birds is a fantastic resource. There’s just so much stuff out there that you can get into just download one of the apps and get some of the bird sounds. I bird by ear a lot, so you can get to that level. If you’re into music more than visual, then you can get into birding that way. So, but there’s tons of information out there, and there’s tons more to learn. That’s what’s so fun about it: you know, you could be Joe Schmo and learn something new to contribute to the science or continue to study. So it’s a very open discipline. And you can take it all the way up to Cornell and take classes at Cornell, if you want, just go travel the world and see some of these amazing birds that live on our planet share this planet with us. It’s just never ending amazement. [Clay joyfully laughs]
Emily: Like a real life Pokémon trainer.
Clay: Yeah, well I don’t know, I never did Pokémon. But yeah, something—it’s like, you know, you don’t get to train them. But you get to learn how they’re using the environment. And then this is how we’ve learned how to use the environments a lot through these earth cultures of what these birds are doing or what this animal is doing, and then copying that. And that was that’s essential to human survival. So we have a lot to thank them for. [Clay joyfully laughs]
Emily: I know that birding isn’t all that you do, so what else is in the picture of Clay Anderson?
Clay: Well, I got formally trained in the arts, not just by the school, but by my mother. My mother was an illustrator for one of the oldest black newspapers in the United States. And that’s The Chicago Defender. So, she kind of passed that on to some of us in my family. And I just really dug illustrating and drawing and stuff. So illustrating was one of my favorites. But also like doing art and just, you know, open creative art for myself. And I try to incorporate that as much as I can in my work. And of course, as a naturalist, again, we’re talking about systems, our natural systems and how we, as a species, can encourage these systems and protect and preserve these systems because they’re the key to our survival, not just to the wildlife, you know, so you can’t just study birds and not be concerned about the rest of it. Right. I was always into all of it anyway, so it was easy for me. But yeah.
Emily: Did you ever try to formally study birds or any kind of environmental science?
Clay: I went to school for a few years for Environmental Studies up in Wisconsin. A place called Northland College. I don’t even know if they exist anymore. But I went there for a few years and realized I wasn’t prepared for college. And I thought, well, let me figure something else out. And I moved up, moved out to California, to be with my father—my father lived here at the time—and I started going to school at San Jose State and I got my degree in art drawing and painting at that point. But I always keeping my finger in nature, natural history and natural science. I was always into that. I should have made minored in it. But anyway, I got out of school, my first job out of college was, of course, environmental education programs. So it was great. I loved it. And I worked with environmental groups for, you know, off and on for over 10 years. You know, the pay isn’t that at that time, wasn’t that great at it still isn’t that great. And so sometimes I’d have to get out to get money and do other things, and then eventually it would draw me back in, you know, so yeah.
Emily: When you say you worked with environmental groups, you mean like with with kids or with adults?
Clay: Yeah. I worked for—of all things, you told me you were with Save the Redwoods League. I’m very familiar with them because I used to work at Big Basin State Park. And I was there for almost five, six seasons. I was going to college in San Jose State, so anyway, I would go over there during the summer and work as a park aid. Eventually, I would be there for nine months out of the year because they gave us housing. And I was thinking about becoming a ranger, but that dream faded when you can see most rangers at that time, and I don’t know about now, but they were mostly glorified policemen—you know, worrying about defensive tactics and shooting, sneaking around and checking on people. And it was just like, no, I don’t want to do that. So yeah, so that dream faded. And I just stayed as kind of a naturalist person and I would do all the naturalist things that these glorified policemen didn’t want to do because they would have a detail. Part of their job was to do nature interpretation. They weren’t doing that. So they were like, ‘Clay, could you do that?’ And I was like, ‘Hmm, let me think about that. Sure!’
So I kept doing that and just, you know, getting more experience and worked with some of the guys that built the museum there, helping them, learning a little bit about taxidermy and exhibits. And I built the sign for them. I painted the sign for that museum, which they used for almost 35 years.
Clay: Yeah, I went back like a few years ago, and there was it was! I was just like, ‘Wow!’ So I got some pictures of it, and I went back the next year and got some more pictures of it. I was just like, ‘OK, great.’ And then then the fire happened.
Emily: You’re a real part of Big Basin history!
Clay: Yeah! I was there for quite a few years and had a great great time. I mean, you know, when you got, I think it’s like 20,000 acres of wilderness as your backyard, it’s just like—I walk off into the woods, just like right out of my back door, and it’s amazing. I had some great times hunting mushrooms and working with some of the biologists that come out there to do research, particularly on the marbled murrelets, which is one of the birds you find in a redwood—totally, well, not totally, but heavily connected to the redwood forests, old redwood forests.
Emily: Right. They spend part of their lives out at sea and then come back to the old growth redwoods to nest.
Clay: Yes. So we would get out at three, four o’clock in the morning, couldn’t see, and count these birds flying back from the ocean. It was pretty cool.
Emily: What are some other birds people can see or hear in a redwood forest?
Clay: You know, the spotted owl is another one that’s kind of connected to the redwood forest. I’m trying to think of some of the other ones…like Pacific wren. And pileated woodpeckers are heavily connected to the redwood forest, only because what’s left of the redwood forest is protected. These birds need large trees, and so they kind of hang out in those areas. But they also go into Douglas fir and other places you know, but if you wanted to see one in the Bay Area, one of the best places to go to see one is one of the redwood parks like Muir or [Big] Basin.
[Jazzy musical interlude]
Emily: I was really excited to ask Clay about the popular nature journaling classes he leads at Lake Merritt. To be a naturalist or an artist requires paying attention to the world around you and how you respond to it. Nature journaling is one of the ways you can do that. It’s the practice of recording your observations, thoughts, questions, and feelings in response to nature, whether that’s through writing or drawing. It can be an observation about your surroundings, or how you’re feeling in response to something in your environment. In short, it’s a great way to bring your attention to where you’re at.
[Seagulls chattering noisily in the background]
Clay: It’s year round and it’s open enrollment. So if people want to jump in and pay for six months, they can. If they want to do the whole year, they can. We break in July, come back in September, and start the whole cycle again so people can journal and witness what’s going on in the lake through the seasons. And we share in our group. There’s no, you know, grades or anything. It’s just people and their experiences and sharing their experience with about the lake. You can be a writer, you can be an artist, you can be both or you could be neither. It doesn’t matter. It’s totally open to everyone who wants to learn. And we do it every once a month for the first for 10 months. We meet the second Thursday of every month. And then that following Saturday, we meet out here on the lake for a nature walk. And maybe journal while we’re out here.
Emily: That seems like a really fun way to get a sense of place and feel a connection to—
Clay: Yes, exactly. That’s the whole point, is to get people familiar with the lake and the refuge and, appreciate it. It develops more appreciation for it. Because with all the activity that goes on in high urban area like this, it’s easy to neglect a refuge when people are looking for refuge themselves. But if you turn to the refuge, you can get some healing here, and especially if you take care of it and add to it.
[Jazzy musical interlude]
Emily: Is there anything about your work—your birding, your art, your environmental education—that you want people to know about?
Clay: Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, hopefully I’ll be publishing some books in the future. Some of them are art books, of course. I’m always looking for opportunities to talk with folks about nature and the issues around nature and, you know, conservation, wildlife conservation, and just maybe one day running a nature center. That’s one of my dreams.
Emily: Ah! I want to visit your nature center!
Clay: It was one of those long term goals of mine. So yeah, I mean, I’m always being approached by folks to talk about stuff. It’s fun. I really enjoy it.
Emily: As we come to the close of this interview, we like to end with a lightning round of just fun questions, popcorn style, so feel free to answer with whatever comes to mind. All right, the first one: can you give us a bird call?
Clay: Umm…[Laughs] Let’s see…what’s something easy…I’m not very singy. I’ve never been very singy. But I’ll go [croaking sound] ‘rah, rah, rah, rah, rah.’ That is a heron. That’s as melodious as I get.
Emily: [Laughing] Beautiful. Okay, next question. If your personality was embodied by a bird, what bird would it be?
Clay: Well, that depends. Strength and power and determination, I would say Golden Eagle. Intelligence, I would say stellar jay, or something like that. Reaching for, reaching long term, I would say probably a tern, Caspian tern. Turacos. Turacos are amazing to me in terms of form. I just love that bird. And it’s from Africa, actually. It’s not from here.
Emily: I’ll have to look that one up.
Clay: Yeah, you’ve got some research!
Emily: What’s your favorite bird right now? Not your all-time favorite, but just a bird you’ve been seeing recently that you’ve really been enjoying spending time with?
Clay: Wow, that’s a good question. Well, I’ve been doing a little bit of — getting my teachers some information on some birds. And I really got into the house finch, which most people don’t even think about very much. It’s a nondescript bird. Not very showy. The males have a little bit of red on their head. But one of the remarkable things about them is that they’ve, in a span of like 30, or I think 40 or 50 years, their population has spread across the United States. They were only in the deserts before Western man came into the situation. And then once we started doing feeders, Just having houses built all over the place, the birds expanded because it’s not afraid of people. It actually sees people as kind of an opportunity. So we, of course, we named it the house finch because it will come to your house and use your house as a nesting space. So it’s a very intelligent animal in that way. So I find that fascinating that this bird actually expanded its range because of human influence, not reduced, which is mostly usually the case.
Emily: That’s really cool that they came from the deserts. Okay, next question: What is your favorite non-bird animal right now?
Clay: Oh Lord, you’re giving me harder and harder questions—I can’t just do these! Okay, I’ll just say numbat.
Clay: Numbats are anteaters that lives in Australia. And they live in South West Australia. The marsupial equivalent of an anteater.
Emily: Cool. Can you name an artist who inspires you?
Clay: One that most people are familiar with is somebody like Van Gogh. He was amazing because of the textures that he created in his work. I really dig that artist. But there’s, oh my god, there’s tons of artists that I just love. But yeah, that’s one easy to recognize for folks.
Emily: Are there any local Oakland artists you’ve been getting into?
Clay: Eddie Gale is a great illustrator. And he’s—I don’t know if he’s passed or not. But he made some beautiful illustrations. And I went, ‘there was one of the few artists that I want to be like him.’ Yeah, he’s an African American illustrator.
Emily: And do you have a favorite medium to practice art in?
Clay: No, I tend to create it however I see it. I tend to fall into pencils a lot. But I also work in watercolor, oils, whatever, you know, to create what it is I see in my head. That’s because I like to work from my mind when I do art. So but yeah— pencils because it lends itself to illustration. But anything that’s gonna get me to achieve my goal to where I’m trying to go to.
Emily: Do you have a favorite redwood park?
Clay: Of course! It’s obvious: Big Basin! That’s where I got sprung on redwoods, you know. Yeah, like I said, when I used to work there, the rangers would say, ‘Clay. Could you do that nature walk for me?’ ‘Of course!’ you know. And so I go and talk about redwoods. Go research them and talk about them. And you get to see them and what was happening. And I think one time we were in the office and one of the trees fell. Oh my god. It was l like a bomb went off.
Emily: So you heard a tree falling in a forest?
Clay: Yeah, it shook—and that was about half a mile away—it shook the floor of that building. It was amazing. Yeah, when those big those big trees fall, man.
Emily: That sounds like one of those truly awe inspiring moments out in nature.
Clay: Yeah, I mean, well, after we got over the shock, we realized we were still alive. And we all ran over there. And it was like marveling when they fall, they lay on the ground for you know, 500, 600 years, and contributing back to the forest all those years, you know? Yeah, it was a super cool experience. I learned a lot just being there.
Emily: And last question: what place feels like home?
Clay: What place feels like home? Wherever I am. But out in nature, of course. Any kind of a nature space is where I want to be. And coming to Lake Merritt puts me back there, you know, as noisy as it is. It’s here for the birds. It’s here for the wildlife. And tells me that every time I go to a wildlife—when I travel, I go to wildlife refuges, I go to some of the Indian reservations because I’m part that. So I get to see—it reaffirms humanity for me, because we’re basically all this stuff. Our bodies are basically all this stuff.
Emily: So, here for the birds, here for the wildlife—including the people, too.
Clay: Yes, indeed. Indeed. You can’t do it without people. Definitely can’t do it without people. So thank you for the interview. This was great.
PSA: ExploreRedwoods.org is your portal to California’s magical coastal redwood and giant sequoia forests. Visit ExploreRedwoods.org to learn what’s available in more than 100 Redwood parks and plan an unforgettable adventure. From hiking and biking trails to camping to swimming holes… this web based app will get you there. Visit ExploreRedwoods.org.
[Theme song outro]
I’ll Go If You Go, a Save the Redwoods League podcast.
Through conversations with Black, Indigenous, and people of color who explore and work in the outdoors, we’re building community and illuminating how Californians from all walks of life think about and experience nature and conservation, in the redwoods and beyond.
About the host of Season 2
Emily Harwitz (she/her) is a multimedia science writer and photographer whose work focuses on the environment and our connection to it. She tells stories that foster community, provoke curiosity, and inspire a sense of deeper connection with the natural world around us.
Be sure to follow our podcast in your preferred app to be notified when new episodes are posted!