Sharing his passion for bird watching
Birder extraordinaire Charles "Chuck" Gates is an Oregonian through and through.
Raised on a farm near Culver, he graduated from Culver High School in 1977. With farming parents, he learned early on about conservation ethics. He raised pigs, cattle and sheep and helped his parents cultivate various crops.
Since fourth-grade, he knew he wanted to be a teacher. At Southern Oregon State College, he majored in English until a college counselor introduced him to biology. This led him to complete a degree in biology education in 1983. After teaching high school at Culver for five years, he taught the next 25 years at Crook County High School.
Chuck's enthusiasm is contagious. When I telephone for an interview, he promptly suggests an outdoor venue with birds and wildlife.
He tells me about an event that occurs while teaching that spurs his interest in birding. He says that one day during a storm, more than 1,000 gulls land in the football field near the school where he is teaching biology. They stayed for four to five days, and people keep asking him about the gulls.
Not knowing an answer, he researches the phenomenon. That experience stimulates his interest in learning the common and scientific names of various birds. Before long, he is involved in local birding organizations and serves on the board of directors for the Oregon Field Ornithologists (people who study birds).
Chuck tells me, "It is such a thrill to show people a bird and let them see it for the very first time." He says, "The reason people do not see is because they do not look. You must look to see!"
Chuck is standing on the paved hiking and bicycle trail at the Crooked River Wetlands Complex with his spotting scope as we talk. It is a bit overcast, fairly warm with no wind. He suddenly looks up and points toward a large raptor circling overhead and says, "An immature bald eagle."
In astonishment, I draw my binoculars up to take a closer look. Sure enough, a large speckled brownish eagle floats gracefully through the air. I ask how he knew it is a bald eagle and not a golden eagle. He says that feather speckling was an indicator and that a golden eagle is darker in color.
Chuck has my full attention. I feel so in awe of being able to stand in our peaceful Prineville valley and see our national bird hover overhead. I have seen plenty of hawks throughout the valley, but not bald eagles.
It is still early in the season. Chuck explains that one of the reasons birding is so interesting is because bird populations are seasonal. All four seasons attract different flocks of birds — some migrate through the area, some stay and nest, and others live here year round. To see different birds, it is important to visit various locations.
There are more than 420 bird species in the 36 counties of Oregon. In arid Crook County on a good day, one might see more than 140 different species in multiple habitats. On the Oregon Coast, a person might see more than 200 different species in a day.
Chuck's wife, Dorothy, is also an avid birder. They travel to pursue their birding passion and recently returned from Honduras and last spring visited Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. They also visit Mexico, Belize and the Caribbean.
Involved on a professional level, Chuck is a founding board member and past president of the East Cascades Audubon Society. He writes numerous articles for Oregon Birds Magazine and the East Cascades Oregon Audubon Newsletter called "The Calliope." He created and maintains the Central Oregon Bird Database and records bird sightings and numbers.
Recently, he started the Prineville Birding Club. As many as 30 birdwatchers gather the second Thursday of every month at the Crook County Library from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Growing rapidly, the club plans monthly fieldtrips and hosts program speakers at these meetings.
Chuck is one of half a dozen local citizens who conduct light maintenance and public information at the Crooked River Wetlands Complex for the City of Prineville. They monitor bird populations, noxious weed growth, visitor behavior and usage.
Several volunteers conduct tours by special request. A four-passenger golf cart is available for them to haul people to the far reaches of the wetlands. Interpretive signs and wooden piers in selected areas make it easy for people to access open water and marshes.
The volunteer team is headed by Jim Van Vlack, who is always eager to recruit additional volunteers.
As Chuck and I make our way down the back side of the wetland path system, Jim pulls up in a small motorized vehicle with a hauling bed. He smiles warmly when Chuck introduces me as president of the Crook County Garden Club. He tells us he is gathering tumbleweeds that have blown in along the fence line to transport to the burn pile.
As we move forward, coots and several duck species are pointed out, and Chuck slows down when we reach a cluster of cinnamon teals. Their cinnamon-colored necks flash brilliantly in the sun, and he quietly reaches for his camera, with its foot-long lens, to capture their beauty.
Back at the parking lot, two more volunteers disembark and head toward one of the interpretive kiosks. Chuck tells me that local middle school children construct bird houses, which city employees secure on fence posts around the wetland. Volunteers tag each one and monitor nesting activity throughout the season.
What an amazing team effort. The Crooked River Wetlands Complex, designed to solve a sewer water cleansing issue, is becoming a nexus of human and wildlife activity.
Six more vehicles pull into the parking lot, and parents with children spill out to walk their dogs and enjoy the morning. The facilities are being used, and plans are in place to make it an even better meeting place for people.
I felt fulfilled and inspired after spending the morning in the wetland with Chuck — learning new information, and seeing nature in action.
The vision of an immature bald eagle drifts across my mind's eye as I recall the magnificent bird filling the lenses of my binoculars.
Charles "Chuck" Gates is officially retired, but the headline on his business card says "Come Birding with Me!" On the back side of the card is a place to jot down date, time and location of your next appointment with Chuck. His calendar fills fast. The Crook County Garden Club has scheduled him for a presentation open to the public at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 19 at the Crook County Fire and Rescue Conference Room, 500 NE Belknap St. in Prineville. The program is titled "Attracting Birds to Your Landscape." Please use the east side entrance to the meeting room and park vehicles behind the Eagles Lodge near the park. For more information, call 541-430-9992.
Call Jim Van Vlack to volunteer at the wetlands, 541-447-4323.