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Birds of a Feather : Jim and Sylvia Gallagher's hobby is no flight of fancy--the Huntington Beach couple spend many hours chronicling lives of winged creatures.

September 22, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

HUNTINGTON BEACH — Perhaps, in the estuaries and thickets visited by migratory birds, there are little service stations where the birds can clean their windshields and refuel before proceeding south. And if the birds can pick up road maps there, the Huntington Beach house of Jim and Sylvia Gallagher must certainly be marked on them as a favored rest stop.

The Gallaghers have made their back yard into the Harris Ranch of bird comfort zones, with a pumice birdbath with dripping water to attract warblers, and all manner of feed--from home-grown sunflowers to caterpillars--to entice others. Once they get a crowd of birds, other birds are naturally attracted, including predators who also find a well-fed meal there.

Meanwhile, retired cop Jim sits in a blind--sort of a dog house with more headroom and less style--shooting away at them with a Nikon mounted with a 500-millimeter lens. Last Thursday he sat there from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. hoping in vain that a rare bird he'd seen at 8:15 would return. Sylvia works from four to seven hours every morning on an atlas of Orange County breeding birds, with maps and articles about each species. The book should be published early next year by the Sea & Sage chapter of the National Audubon Society, the largest of three Orange County chapters, of which she is an active member.

Had it not been for the book project keeping her tied to the computer, the Gallaghers would most likely be on one of their annual four-month jaunts looking for birds they haven't yet seen. On one such birding trip last year, they hauled their trailer through Canada and up 460 miles of dirt road into the Arctic Circle.

Through such trips, their yard and visits to locals wetlands and parks, Jim has taken some 7,000 slides of 451 feathered species, while Sylvia, armed with a shotgun mike and a Sony recorder, has filled 116 cassettes with bird songs.

Not too surprisingly, it was through their love of birds that the couple met. Jim had called her once with a question in her capacity as bird information officer for Sea & Sage, but she doesn't remember the call. What did impress her when she saw him first was his big lens.

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Sitting in their den Monday, Sylvia recalled, "Sea & Sage was making educational filmstrips at the time and needed photos, so we were in the habit of striking up a conversation with anybody with a long lens. A friend and I were birding in Santiago Oaks Park. I was standing way up on top of a hill and saw this man with a long lens going this way, and could see my friend and her party going that way, and I knew she would get him.

" I got him in '86. We just dealt with each other on a more or less professional basis for three or four years, doing photography for the filmstrips. We took a lot of day trips to the mountains. We went up seven or eight times trying to get the white-headed woodpecker, as I recall, and never could quite get it."

"And we just got chummier and chummier," Jim recalled with a smile.

Santa Ana native Sylvia, 58, recalls becoming interested in birds in 1968 while watching her mother feed some in the yard. She got some field glasses and a bird book, and the interest grew from there. A high school and college chemistry teacher much of her life, she's taught bird identification courses since 1978.

Jim, 67, didn't pay much attention to birds until after retiring in 1980 from 29 years on the LAPD, including 19 as a detective in Watts.

"I think that's one of the reasons I went into it," he said. "There's so much stress involved in police work, that to get away from it and get interested in nature to me was really restful.

"I had been told I had a medical problem, something wrong with my heart--which I still don't think I have--so I took up walking. I was walking with a friend in the Bolsa Chica wetlands, and he kept saying, 'Hey, what bird is that?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'They're darned interesting things. You ought to know what they are.' When he left, over a week later here comes a bird book in the mail. That got me interested.

"Then I took a class on identifying them, and I was amazed how awful the slides were, so I decided to do better than that. I bought a camera and lens and kept progressing to better cameras and lenses."

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Even his failed photos can come in handy. In her bird identification classes, Sylvia sometimes projects one of his clunkers on the screen, challenging her students' ability to tell what bird it is when its out of focus or barely in the frame. She's graduated more than 600 students out of classes held in the Gallagher's couch-crowded living room--but she's not an easy teacher. When Jim helps her with the classes, it's sort of a good cop-bad cop situation.

"She tortures them and really makes them work to identify the birds," he said, "and I give them the answers to end their misery.

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