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They're really and truly for the birds

Tom and Jo Heindel's first date was a birding trip in the Santa Monica Mountains. After years of cataloguing avian life forms, they're nearing completion of a definitive Inyo County guide.

November 03, 2009|Louis Sahagun

BIG PINE, CALIF. — On a recent weekday morning, Tom and Jo Heindel strode to the top of a hill at the edge of town and held hands, savoring the panoramic views below of elk grazing in alfalfa fields, strips of willows along streams and elm trees glistening with the remnants of rain.

Then Tom, 73, and Jo, 71, got down to business.

"A few dozen scaup, 10 eared grebes, 12 Clark's grebes, 20 canvasbacks and a Northern harrier gliding low and fast," Jo said, peering through a spotting scope.

"Got it," said Tom, transcribing the information on a tally sheet spread across the hood of their aging white mini-pickup truck. "It is 8:50 a.m. and 66 degrees, with 2-mile-per-hour winds from the north under clear blue skies."

Theirs is a love story that dates to a spring day in 1953 when Tom, 16, asked Jo, 14, out on their first date -- bird watching in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Thus began the ornithological passion that has carried the Heindels through 55 years of marriage and careers as high school science teachers in the United States, Bolivia, Ecuador and Saudi Arabia.

But the most significant and enduring contribution of the relationship -- one Jo likes to call "a menage a trois, with birds being the third party" -- began in 1972 as a plan to produce a little guide to the birds of the Eastern Sierra.

Now the Heindels are nearing completion of what has grown into a 500-page draft manuscript of a comprehensive scientific survey of every species and subspecies ever documented in Inyo County over the last 150 years.

The tentative title: "The Status and Distribution of the Birds of Inyo County Including Death Valley National Park."

The 200,000-plus entries document species, behavior, date, time, temperature, wind direction -- even the make and power of the binoculars or telescope used by the observers. They also include the first recorded sightings of a particular species, its highest recorded elevation and whether it is a resident, migrant or summer visitor.

The Heindels say their project has cost them tens of thousands of dollars for computer equipment, file cabinets, travel, phone calls, research materials, cameras and scopes -- not to mention time. "If we took minimum pay for all the time we've put into it," Jo said, "we could pay off the federal debt."

Now, with the book "95% done," Tom said, ornithologists have been urging them to shop for a publisher.

The Heindels' book will be among the most ambitious of its kind published in the last 50 years, experts say.

"There are thousands of counties in the United States, yet most states do not have a single county bird book," said James Van Remsen, a professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University's Museum of Natural Science. "So I admire the Heindels. In retirement and at their own expense, they are making a rare contribution: a total, all-out description of avifauna in one of the largest and most complex counties of them all."

In a home office bulging with files, photographs, maps, correspondence, bird books and copies of naturalists' field notes, Jo sighed: "Our friends are questioning whether we will ever get the darned thing done. We're wondering too."

Shaking his head, Tom added: "The most important thing left to do is set a cutoff point for accepting new information, which may be soon."

Their effort has become the stuff of legend among premier ornithologists, who liken it to the inventory of California life forms compiled a century ago by Joseph Grinnell of UC Berkeley's Museum of Natural History.

"Tom and Jo are compiling data down to the level of subspecies, which many bird analyses do not do," said Kimball Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. "But there is so much variation within species in Inyo County that they have doubled and tripled their workload by investigating birds at that level."

Avian diversity comes with the territory in Inyo County, a land of striking geographic contrasts where the High Sierra and the Mojave Desert collide. More species of birds have been recorded in Inyo County than in each of 29 states.

Ironically, the workload has all but transformed the Heindels into recluses, leaving them with little time for contact with birds in the field.

They have given up bird-banding efforts at Death Valley National Park, breeding-bird surveys in remote corners of Inyo County and bird-watching trips closer to home. Tom even turned down a recent opportunity to see a wood thrush, which he'd never seen here before, because it would have taken valuable time away from the book. An annual trip to a birding hot spot in Texas, Ohio or Florida is out of the question.

"We're not writing for today's bird watchers," Jo said, leafing through a thick stack of field notes. "We're creating a window into Inyo County's bird life for people living 100 years from now."

Of the 425 species of birds ever seen in Inyo County, Tom has personally identified 408. "I'm a few birds behind Tom," Jo said.

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