Dr. Fred Emerson: Birdman of the Santa Ynez Valley

Fred Emerson
There isn’t much Fred Emerson doesn’t know about birds, plants, geology, and natural history. A popular local naturalist, Emerson’s entertaining birdwatching hikes attract an enthusiastic following.

There are 27 binoculared people walking along a path—chattering, rattling and clattering—seemingly sure to scare the locals. Suddenly, as if on cue, a pair of small creatures takes wing from a nearby live oak and fly toward the people, landing nearly at the feet of the crowd and striking a pose.
About five inches long, they are pale gray birds with black faces and bright yellow highlights in the breast, wings, and rump. Witness, please, a pair of seldom-seen Lawrenceʼs goldfinches, materializing as if on the payroll.
“Seeing them really gets the heart rate up,” says one of the group, long-time birder Jeff Hanson. “Thatʼs quite a rare bird, only found in a few places in Santa Barbara County.”
All in a morningʼs work when in the company of the Birdman of Santa Ynez Valley, aka Dr. Fred Emerson.
It is a sunny Saturday and Fred is leading his flock on a two-mile bird-watching hike sponsored by the Wildling Art Museum.
They travel up a sandy track called Hog Canyon, part of the 600-acre Rancho San Carlos de Jonata off Ballard Canyon Road. The oak-laden land is owned by Erik Gregersen, whose grandfather Jens and two others bought 8,882 acres of land in 1911 for the Danish American Colony community and founded Solvang. The grounds havenʼt changed much and Gregersen and the resident birds seem to like it that way.
In addition to the Lawrenceʼs goldfinches, the group will see a phainopepla—an eight-inch glossy black bird with a ragged crest and red eyes—plus black-and-rust-colored spotted towhees, California towhees, black phoebes, a dark-eyed junco, lark sparrows, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, western scrub jays, house finches, violet-green swallows, and acorn woodpeckers. Several others, such as the northern flicker and a Bewickʼs wren, will be heard if not seen. All this is noted, reported, and shared during a three-hour jaunt through the oaks with Fred effortlessly doing riffs on all things birds.
His formula is simple: “Go to habitats attractive to birds, areas supplying food, water, and cover.”
To these ends his trips include parks like Cachuma Lake, Nojoqui Falls, and Lake Los Carneros; the bulrushes along the Santa Ynez River; Los Olivos to see the Central Coastʼs unique yellow-billed magpies; and onto various private lands.
“He is extensively knowledgable and very engaging,” says Ingrid Olsson, a Goleta resident who has been on five Emerson-led expeditions.
“And when you sign up with his trips, you often get into out-of-the-way places no one else does.”
During lulls when the birds may be backstage or not cooperating, Fred will do commentary on the plants, natural history, geology, and human history. On this day, he even worked in King Johnʼs signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, which set the stage for public ownership of wildlife. Until then it had been exclusively a royal privilege.
While walking, his group was introduced to a rare Palmerʼs oak, a shrub-like oak that has nearly vanished in nature, known to exist in only three locations in Santa Barbara County. One of his themes is that everything is connected.
“To talk about wildlife is to talk about nearly everything else too,” he wrote in a report from 1968. Rare bird, plant, or just the usual suspects, his goal is to inspire concern for the environment while giving his parties “a pleasant experience in the out of doors.”
Sponsoring groups include the Wildling Museum, UCSB Sedgwick Reserve, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara Botanical Garden, and Santa Barbara City College Adult Education. Prices are generally $15 for a single trip, and more for several weeks of classes.
Fred, who lives in Solvang, grew up in Wellsville, New York. The mother of his best friend in high school was an ornithologist trained at Cornell University, and it was through this association that he got his first taste of birding. He set out to learn all he could. After earning a biology degree from Alfred University, Fred got a PhD in wildlife biology from Cornell—where he met wife, Nancy.
After a postdoctoral fellowship in marine biology at the University of Miami, he worked for several years in wildlife management in the southeast for the Tennessee Valley Authority. In mid-career, intrigued by by what he calls “the interface of ecology and public health,” Fred decided to become a physician and got a degree in medicine from Vanderbilt University, then completed an internal medicine residency at the University of Colorado.
He spent the next 20 years teaching and practicing emergency medicine in Denver and Santa Barbara. He moved to Solvang 11 years ago, partly for the beauty and partly for its proximity to the UCSB Sedgwick Reserve.
He combines professional work and volunteering to share his love of birding and natural history. “You donʼt want to destroy a good hobby by working too much,” he says.
His non-feathered fans keep coming back for more. Birder Hanson has been on one hundred Emerson trips!
“He has inspired me many times over,” he said. “There are a lot of smart people out there, but how it is delivered is what makes Fred so special. He is a true teacher.”
Does the teacher have a favorite bird? He squirms, first saying he likes them all. But when pressed, he admits a fondness for the sora, a rail that hangs out in local freshwater marshes. “It reminds me of home and of those days when we were first birding,” he said, his eyes elsewhere.
There are 914 species of birds in North America and Fred says there are 486 to be found in our area. To him they are indicators of the whole world around us.
“When the California towhee stops showing up in your yard, it is long past time to be concerned about what is happening in our environment,” said the birdman.

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