The Santa Cruz Mountains, overlook at Castle Rock State Park


“For me, birdsong often arrives as the bearer of memories, or of a particular landscape.”

-Don Stap, BirdSong


For some, homesickness is a lost sense of place. Away from familiarity, we long for stability and security. Family members can be an instant cure for home sickness, and sometimes photos and phone calls work too.


Yet when I arrived at my summer home, I found myself seeking familiarity in the songs and calls of birds around me. Although there is no replacement for family and friends, I am realizing how important knowledge of my environment has become. As a little girl I loved to be outside catching bugs and looking at flowers, trying to identify every creature I came across with pocket field guides adult friends had gifted me. I had an anxious desire to staple a name to every life form that crossed my path.


When I came to Santa Cruz for the summer, the first bird I identified was a singing Spotted Towhee. The song was different, with a little more ring and resonance, than those I hear near my Colorado home. It was a different dialect, but with patterns similar enough that I recognized it instantly. Right away I thought of the foothills, the lion-colored grass and distant blue mountains. I have heard that scent is powerful in awakening nostalgia. I think sounds are equally as powerful.


Even as I carried out my volunteer work, I found myself listening to the birdsongs in the oaks and madrones above me. I began to develop a vision of the world around me. Without a name, a tree was just a tree, easily confused with another tree. As soon as I learned the name of the madrone, it immediately found a seat in my mind, and I could discern it from other trees. I began to notice the unique peeling red bark and shiny leaves.


Every locale has its set of common birds. Of course there are rarities and vagrants, but for the most part there are species that will always occupy that space and habitat. For example, the Santa Cruz mountains are characterized by California Towhees and California Quail, Acorn and Pileated Woodpeckers. This is very different from my backyard, where Broad-tailed Hummingbirds always occupy at least one of the feeders and Bullock’s Orioles chatter in every deciduous tree on my street. The two locales share a few birds also, and in them I recall home: Spotted Towhees, Turkey Vultures, Western Scrub-Jay and Steller’s Jay. Knowing the birdlife around me, I am learning, is a very important step in establishing my sense of place, my sense of home.