Today at Berkeley Lab

Ed Vine – The Pleasure of Seeing Birds

By Sabin Russell

It is very hard to miss those wild turkeys that patrol the winding roadsides of Berkeley Lab; but what about the Yellow-rumped Warbler, the Oregon Junco, and the Common Bushtit? If you don’t know the name of that feathered creature that just zipped by your window, chances are that Ed Vine does.

Vine is an Environmental Energy Technologies Division staff scientist who has worked at Berkeley Lab ever since he earned his PhD in ecology from UC Davis in 1980. He picked up the birding habit as a grad student there, and he has been an avid watcher ever since. Hobbled by a broken foot this year, he still managed to find a paved path for a wheelchair at Arrowhead Marsh, near Oakland Airport, so he could continue to savor the pleasure of seeing birds.

“The Bay Area is one of the best birding areas in the world,’’ says Ed. “You can see birds every day of the year here.” Birders, like the birds they watch, come in all shapes and sizes, with a catalog of behaviors. There are backyard birdwatchers, there are bird photographers, there are “listers;” and among those who keep lists, some list every new bird they see, some list only birds from a certain country or state, some maintain “Life Lists” and make it their mission to fill out the missing spaces.

Millions of Americans consider themselves birdwatchers. According to the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment, there are in the United States 81.4 million bird watching participants — from the “casual” to the “highly committed.” Birding has gone Hollywood: The Big Year, a comedy about bird watching starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black, opens today (Oct. 14).

Vine stopped making lists of his sightings long ago; but he still enjoys the excitement of spotting a rare bird — like the majestic California Condors near Big Sur — or simply to observe the subtle variations of plumage and markings, the colors of leg and beak, the distinctions between male and female, juvenile and adult. Birding is also a powerful excuse to get out to favorite places, like Point Reyes National Seashore, to be where the birds are. “If you are a bird watcher in California, you are going to end up at Point Reyes,” he says. “It’s one of the treasures we are lucky was preserved.”

Ed’s passion for birding is no doubt linked to his passion for the environment. Shortly after he earned his PhD at Davis in 1980, he had a 30-minute conversation with Berkeley Lab researcher Mark Levine, who would become a longtime director of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division, and today heads the China Energy Group. “Come in on Monday,” Levine told him. Ed has never left. As an energy policy analyst, today he studies the behavioral aspects of energy use, divining why people make decisions to invest in energy efficiency. He was an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for the U.N., and as such shared with his Berkeley Lab colleagues and Al Gore a piece of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Ed does not consider himself “a serious birder.” The difference between an excellent and an average birder, he says, is how often you are out in the field. The most serious birders “are out there every day,” he says. “They have an objective in mind. They don’t look at every bird.” Ed tries to go on a field trip every other month, and always takes his binoculars on business travels. He’s a regular at the Christmas Bird Count, the 112-year-old tradition where birders around the globe conduct a census of birds in their neighborhoods. He enjoys the camaraderie, but also those unexpected encounters, when the light is perfect, and a Great Blue Heron appears around a corner, up-close, with feathers glistening and iridescent. “Those are the magical times,’’ he says.