Raised by birders

Alan Craig and Narca Moore-Craig
Hollin Stafford’s parents, Alan Craig and Narca Moore-Craig, enjoy a birding trip to Alaska in 1998. Courtesy of Narca Moore-Craig

My first word was a four-letter word. Little did I realize that this one word would have such an enormous effect on my life: on my upbringing, my sense of humor, my view of the world, and my family road trips. The precious little word that, much to my mother’s delight, was the first to ever escape my lips — bird.

The word, so simple, so delicate, for many invokes a lovely image, one of feathers, song, or the freedom of flight. For me, however, it means and will always mean so much more. Mine was no ordinary childhood because my parents were no ordinary parents. They were, still are, and always will be — capital-O Ornithologists.

The horror.

To say my folks are birders is an understatement. From my perspective, every aspect of our life was somehow connected to birds.

My father, Alan Craig, edited the journal Western Birds for 17 years and was one of the founders of California Field Ornithologists, which later became Western Field Ornithologists. He worked for California Fish and Game (now the California Department of Fish and Wildlife) on endangered birds, and then he managed San Jacinto Wildlife Area, located in southern California, for about nine years.

Like my father, my mother’s work has always been about birds. Narca Moore-Craig is an artist and a field biologist, and for 30 years, she guided natural history and birding tours, including trips offered by the Smithsonian Institution, World Wildlife Fund, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Naturalist Journeys. She also was the first woman president of Western Field Ornithologists and has served two terms on the Arizona Bird Committee.

What this meant for me, an extrovert who didn’t study anything related to birds in college but instead majored in sociology, was that I spent every year from fifth grade through high school living in what I viewed as compulsory desolation. I did not share my parents’ love of living miles from anywhere nor for these feathered creatures.

From the time I was two weeks old, my parents took me along on their birdwatching trips. It didn’t matter if we were heading to the Salton Sea, the Rockies, a small brown bush in a neighbor’s yard, or Stater Bros. supermarket, the binoculars were always only an arm’s length away. For my folks, hope was indeed a thing with feathers.

When I asked my dad what sparked his passion for birds, he said he was always at least mildly interested in them. He can remember, at age 7 in Idaho, his grandfather driving right past him on his way home. His grandfather said he kept going because he saw my dad was fixated on a bird.

In the eighth grade, he really got hooked on birding. He was living in Carmichael, California, near Sacramento, and was watching a small flock of Evening Grosbeaks feeding in an olive grove during his lunch period. At the time, he thought such spectacular birds must be stragglers from Mexico, but later he realized it was more likely they were winter visitors from their Sierra Nevada breeding range.

My mother was 17 when she was first taken by a bird. She was looking out her window when she spied a Pyrrhuloxia plucking berries from the pyracantha hedge on her grandparents’ porch in San Angelo, Texas. And as a sophomore in college, she helped a friend with his field study of chickadees and nuthatches, discovered the joys of field guides, and has loved birds ever since.

My parents often tried to entice me to join them in their love of all things feathered. Mom would reminisce about special moments, such as when I was about 4 and she held me up to the spotting scope to see a beautiful and rare bird — Colorado’s first record of a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. And one of my earliest childhood memories is that of a Snowy Owl in Duluth, Minnesota. I can still see it sitting on a ragged wooden fence, the sky and snow tinged pink by the sunrise. If one needed to conjure a definition for magic, I suppose this image would fit the bill. It was glorious.

Over the years, Mom would sit me down in front of a blank white projector screen, turn off the lights, and show me slides from her various world adventures, filling the room with images of the Galápagos, the Antarctic, or any number of other amazing places. In those moments, our small living room felt different somehow — expansive. She may not have managed to inspire a love of birds in me at that age, but she gave me a gift — the knowledge that the world is a wondrous and diverse place and that exploring it (whether in the national park several hours away or a country 5,000 miles from home) deepens you in a way other pursuits do not.

Hollin Stafford petting a dog.
Author Hollin Stafford pets a local dog during a trip to the Baja Peninsula in 1985. Courtesy of Narca Moore-Craig

A Christmas trip for birds

As a child, my view of birds was pretty simple. They were my nemesis! Instead of sitting in front of the TV with a giant bowl of Lucky Charms like “normal” kids on Saturday mornings, I was dragged out of bed before dawn and tossed in the back seat among scopes, macaroni tuna salad, and giant jugs of juice. And even worse, Christmas was dictated by when and where we had to be for Christmas Bird Counts. Like I said, the horror.

Then, in the mid ’80s, something happened.

I was 14 years old and my parents announced we’d be going on a birding trip to Baja California for Christmas…not for a bird count, but definitely for the birds. We were living on the wildlife area in Southern California but didn’t fly to Baja in comfort. Instead, my folks packed up our green Dodge van with sleeping bags, scopes, binoculars, and trail mix that looked suspiciously like bird seed. The vehicle was indeed a sight to behold. Red duct tape covered the broken taillights, and the giant Sabine’s Gull painted on the side had started to run. It looked like dripping bird poop.

We bounced along dirt roads in our aging van toward Bahia de Los Angeles, a rural fishing village on the Gulf of California. I sat in the backseat daydreaming of normal vacations — trips to Disneyland or just the mall.

My parents would stop for any bird, rodent, or shriveled bush they found of interest. I spent my time making up bumper stickers for them in my head — “I break for anything boring” and “Honk if you’re in a fowl mood.” At each stop, there’d be the wild scrambling for the scope, the flipping of field guide pages, and the popping open of Hansen’s All-Natural Mandarin Lime soda before moving another 20 feet. When I complained and asked what we were doing in the middle of nowhere, my mother exclaimed, her cheeks glowing and hair blowing out the open window, that we were exploring the beauty of the desert country (and its birds). Her favorite of the trip was the Gray Thrasher, endemic to the Baja peninsula, which she said was always fun to see in the desert.

I only had two cassette tapes to accompany me on this journey through my teenage hell: Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party” and Depeche Mode’s “Black Celebration.” Seemed fitting.

I desperately tried to drown out the bird calls, bird discussions, and horticulture comments coming from the front seats. The scenery was brown. Over a thousand miles of cactus and dust.

However, and I’d never admit this to my parents at the time, as the miles passed, the stark beauty of the alien place started to scratch at the surface of my teen-angst-induced shell. I noticed that it not only looked different here — it felt different. Somewhere within, I heard it — the stirrings of an ancient call — as if the desert sky itself had opened up and invited me to soar.

One afternoon driving on the peninsula, we stumbled onto some locals throwing rocks at a bird nest. They’d already broken some of the fragile eggs. My mother leapt out of the still-moving van, yelling in fluent Spanish. The men turned and stared as the gringa bounded toward them — blonde hair twisting in the wind, all 5 feet 4 of her coming straight at them with fists waving in the air. Frightened, and reasonably so, they sped off. I stood on the side of the parched road watching — proud that she was my mother.

We finally made it to the small village where we would spend Christmas. We spent our days combing the beach for treasures, floating over the tide pools on a little rubber raft, and, of course, watching birds.

That Christmas Eve is one I will never forget. We had no tree, no tacky tinsel or gifts. We simply sat around a campfire on the beach eating turkey sandwiches and canned cran­berry sauce. My parents’ “wine” of choice was a giant jug of Welch’s Grape Juice that was passed ceremoniously around and from which everyone took a swig.

We sat and talked, and I remember watching as the stars came out. They were dazzling and close. They floated sublimely above, covering us in light. As if a thousand birds occupied a huge azure quilt woven by the spirits of our ancestors and that night decided to take flight.

Alan Craig, Narca Moore-Craig, and Hollin Stafford in Portal, Arizona.
Author Hollin Stafford with her parents and her dog, Howie, in Portal, Arizona, in 1996. Courtesy of Narca Moore-Craig.

I never became a serious birder, but all my nonbirding friends would tell you that I am a birder. With a childhood like mine, I suppose it couldn’t be helped. All that birdwatching and enthusiasm must have taken hold.

These days, my parents live in Portal, a place known mainly by birders and not many others. It’s located in the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona. Portal is a small community at the base of the venerable Cave Creek Canyon. It’s an incredible place, fringed at the base in grasslands and desert and topped with ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir at the highest elevations. It’s a haven for birders as half of North American bird species — yes, half! — can be seen in the canyon. You can stumble upon a dozen hummingbird species, Golden Eagles, Montezuma Quail, and Elegant Trogon, as well as jaguar, black bear, and collared peccaries. Yes, Portal is the perfect place for my parents.

My mother’s current pursuits are wildlife art and designing and editing books. My dad volunteers for (and is on the board of) Friends of Cave Creek Canyon, including working on habitat improvements at Willow Tank, one of the better birding sites in the region.

Currently, I live in Sintra, Portugal, with my husband and son, and, yes, when I see birds, I point them out. I have even been known to pull the car over when I see a group of people on the side of the road, binocs raised upward, scopes standing like strange metal insects dug into the shoulder of the road, to ask, “What we are looking at today?”

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Hollin Stafford

Hollin Stafford is an author, a freelance writer, and a former flight attendant. Her first young-adult novel, Degree of Light, was published in 2018, and her short story, Blue, was published by Literary Mama. She currently lives in Portugal with her family and three dogs.

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