Birds Keep His Spirits Soaring

October 05, 1987|GORDON SMITH

SAN DIEGO — Autumn begins and ends early for Guy McCaskie.

And each year it brings him the same bustling routine.

In June, he starts visiting eucalyptus groves along the San Diego County coast several times each week, with occasional trips to the Laguna Mountains.

Throughout July and August, he rises at 3:30 a.m. to drive to the Salton Sea on weekends, ignoring--or trying to ignore--the blistering desert heat.

During those months he also frequents the shores of North County lagoons such as Batiquitos and San Elijo and, as September gives way to October, he visits Point Loma and the Tia Juana River Valley almost daily.

Finally, in November, McCaskie's autumn comes to an end.

Movements Dictated by Birds

McCaskie is a field ornithologist--a birder. His movements at this time of year are dictated by migrating birds, some of which begin to seek their wintering grounds as early as June. Others head south in subsequent months and by November the great fall shifting of the world's bird populations is virtually complete.

Late summer and autumn are busy times for all birders, whose numbers have grown rapidly in recent years. The National Audubon Society's membership has doubled to 550,000 over the last 10 years and the society estimates that as many as 30 million Americans watch birds at least occasionally. In San Diego, the society's local chapter and the Natural History Museum now sponsor regular classes on bird-watching.

But few people pursue birding with the passion McCaskie does. Although he works about 50 hours a week as vice president in charge of contract management for the Trepte Construction Co., he still finds time for another 50 hours of birding every week. He'll drive or fly hundreds of miles on a moment's notice for a glimpse of a single rare bird.

He carries his $700 binoculars with him wherever he goes and recently he purchased a four-wheel-drive station wagon so he could reach remote bird-watching locations via roads that would tear the innards out of an ordinary car.

All that seems like odd behavior for anyone, much less a construction company vice president. But McCaskie, 51, a precise man with a love of logic and an offbeat sense of humor, has never been much concerned about what other people might think of him.

At the same time, he has always known exactly what he wanted to do when it comes to watching birds. A resident of Imperial Beach, he is considered not only one of the top field ornithologists in the United States--he's the one who started the current birding craze in California back in the early 1960s.

"Guy certainly got things started in this part of the world," said Elizabeth Copper, who has known McCaskie for years and is herself considered one of the top field ornithologists in the state.

McCaskie first became interested in birds while growing up in Scotland. Collecting bird eggs is a common hobby for schoolboys there, he said, the way collecting and trading baseball cards is for American boys.

As a teen-ager, he attended a private school in northern Scotland, where the teachers informed him that he had to have an "official" hobby. McCaskie chose bird-watching and eventually became president of the school's bird-watching club.

After serving in the British Army, McCaskie moved to the Lake Tahoe area of California in 1957 and began working in construction. In 1962, he moved to San Diego to study civil engineering at San Diego State University (one of only two schools in the state that had an undergraduate program in civil engineering at that time), and by the time he graduated he was already working at Trepte.

"I've always been fascinated by construction," McCaskie said. "I like seeing buildings being built. . . . It's just that I have a hobby--bird-watching--that's strictly opposite."

While he was getting involved in the construction business, McCaskie was revolutionizing birding in California. "The style of bird-watching then (popular in the state) was very different than it is today," he explained. "People would get together and look for birds the way they go to look at desert wildflowers or something. They went to see things that were bound to be there--like acorn woodpeckers in the Laguna Mountains.

Blown Off Course

"In Great Britain, the idea was to try to find some (rare) vagrant," a bird in a place it isn't normally found. Some vagrant birds have been blown off course by storms; others apparently have faulty navigational instincts and simply migrate to the wrong places.

"To me it seemed anticlimactic to not look for unusual birds," he said. "I couldn't live with the style of birding (that was popular here), so I became a loner."

He began traveling throughout California, keeping a list of all the different birds he saw. It wasn't long before he had added 20-25 species to the roster of birds officially known to have alighted at one time or another in the state. And it wasn't long after that that a younger generation of birders began to follow McCaskie's lead.

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