Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Techies Recharge by Birding & Help Make Silicon Valley Better for Birds

“Egret Office Hours” is a hit at Google headquarters.

In the shadow of Levi Stadium, home to the San Francisco 49ers, a group of birders raised their cameras fitted with telephoto lenses to photograph a Golden-crowned Sparrow in a tangle of branches. This being Silicon Valley, these birders have day jobs at some of America’s biggest tech companies. For them, birding provides a chance to decompress, refocus, and stay curious. This particular birding walk at the Ulistac Natural Area – an oasis of nature that’s the only open-space park in the city of Santa Clara – was organized by the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Chapter.

For semiconductor industry execu­tive Vivek Khanzode, whose Instagram handle is @birdpixel and whose Twitter bio reads Electrical engineer during the week; Bird photographer on the week­ends, birds are a form of feathered re­lease, as are the activities associated with birding.

“The tech stuff is generally very high stress,” Khanzode said while focusing his camera on a Hermit Thrush. “This is almost like meditation for me.” Khanzode’s office is nearby, and he said that before work he sometimes takes a walk with his binoculars in the natural area to clear his mind before it enters “the ac­tive groove” that the tech industry de­mands.

Standing beside him, Bill Walker, a site reliability engineering manager for Google, agreed: “Birding is very in the moment; it engages all your attention.” Walker recently volunteered to teach a bird photography class at Google, and 40 employees signed up. He also helps to organize “Egret Office Hours” on the Google campus, when he and fellow Santa Clara Valley Audubon members set up spotting scopes for people to observe and learn about a nearby egret and heron nesting rookery established in a stand of sycamore trees.

Matthew Dodder, the executive direc­tor of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Chapter, explained that Egret Office Hours is an important kind of community outreach in Silicon Valley. Dodder said that any Google employee interested in stepping out of the office for a few minutes and scan the edges of the park­ing lot can discover that “birding is not an exclusive thing.” He added that the spotting scopes are open to non-Google folks too – any passersby can get a good look at an egret at its nest.

In addition to leading birding walks and community outreach, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Chapter also partners with the biggest tech names in Silicon Valley on conser­vation projects. At Facebook headquar­ters in Menlo Park, the chapter helps operate a bird monitoring survey atop a 9 acre rooftop garden of native plants that functions as a pri­vate preserve for employees and a model for corporate hab­itat development. More than 60 species of birds have been recorded on eBird from the green roof, including Hooded Orioles and Black-throated Gray Warblers.

The chapter also encouraged Facebook administrators to adopt bird-friendly standards for the new Gehry-designed building on its campus. The building’s windows feature “fritted glass” to reduce the risk of bird collisions, and the roof’s edges are rimmed with smooth metal so raptors can’t perch there, an effort to help protect threatened Snowy Plovers that inhabit the adjacent baylands.

“Big Tech is continuing to build new buildings and expand to new campuses in Silicon Valley,” said Dodder. “By having close relationships with companies like Facebook and Google, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Chapter can encourage them to do things like protect open spaces and corridors that birds need, use native plants for landscaping, and incorporate bird-safe designs in their buildings. It helps the birds as well as the public image of these companies.”

The above article was written by author Nick Neely for The Cornell of Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website at Nick Neely also has a new book available: Alta California: From San Diego to San Francisco, A Journey on Foot to Rediscover the Golden State.