And then I took a walk with Mike Moran.
A winter storm had scraped through East County like steel wool and passed into Central Valley, scouring the sky to a cloud-free finish, when Moran led 18 birdwatchers down Marsh Creek Trail in Oakley on an outing called Raptor Baseline. Held on the last Thursday of the month, the citizen-science program gives amateurs such as I a chance to help experts such as Moran gather hard data about the ecosystem.
We struck out north from the East Cypress Road Staging Area at 9 a.m., and it wasn’t long before the birds of prey began showing up. Moran pointed west and 18 binoculars swung around to follow an American kestrel’s aerobatic landing atop a power pole against the backdrop of Mt. Diablo. A minute later a red-tailed hawk, a significantly bigger bird, swooped in to evict the kestrel from the prime perch. The kestrel flitted onto an adjacent pole, and wouldn’t you know it – a second red-tailer came storming in and muscled him off. As those in higher ornithological circes like to say: size matters.
Moran serves as acting supervisor of Big Break Regional Shoreline, a key property in the archipelago of natural wonders operated by the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). If things are looking up for Mike Moran, it’s not just because the raptors he observes require looking up. He was recently selected by the National Association for Interpretation as a Master Front-Line Interpreter – one of only two in the nation in 2012.
Moran considers the honor “wonderful and humbling, but lots of folks are incredibly deserving of the award. It’s a nice reflection of the system we support so much. The district puts a lot of stock in interpretation.”
A couple minutes on the trail with Moran are all you need to understand why he was singled out as a master practitioner of his craft. A raptor barnstormed past our Baseline group and Moran meticulously counted the creature’s wingbeats, identifying the bird as a Cooper’s hawk. The group spotted a heron patrolling the creek below, and Moran whipped out his book and nabbed the feathered friend’s ID: a rarely seen green heron.
What distinguishes Moran from the pedantic dispenser of nature factoids is his blend of infectious enthusiasm and relaxed intensity. “The key is that it’s got to be fun,” he said. The man who once dreamed of a career in sports broadcasting knows how to sustain the tempo and lingo of a play-by-play announcer. When specifying the gender of a northern harrier, he’ll cite not the color but the “paint job.” Quick on the draw with an improvisational quip, he’s not reluctant to unleash an elaborate joke worthy of the standup scene – or worthy of groans.
If a nature expedition such as Raptor Baseline is one part fun and games, Moran’s odyssey as a naturalist has been mostly good old-fashioned hard work – and lots of it. He traces his interest in the natural world to nothing more remarkable than family vacations to national parks and camp counseling. But it was a class at San Diego State “in something called Leisure Theory,” he said wryly, that flipped the switch. From there, he completed bachelor’s degree programs at San Francisco State in recreation and leisure studies, plus geography and human environmental studies, and earned his master’s in wildland resource science from UC Berkeley.
Moran’s early body of work as a naturalist exposed him to a body of water significantly saltier than the Delta. He served with the Oceanic Society, the Headlands Institute and the Central California Coast Biosphere Reserve. But it’s his work with the EBRPD that has put him in the forefront of the interpretive scene. Since joining the district in 1994 he has become a mentor of mentors, developing the docent program for Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve and the interpretive plans for Vasco Caves (where he served as primary interpreter) plus Big Break. He has also conducted docent enrichment sessions at the Oakland Museum of California.
Moran has forged partnerships between the EBRPD and city programs such as Oakley Science Week, nonprofits such as Friends of Marsh Creek Watershed and, perhaps most crucially, schools. It’s fitting that the man with the instincts of a teacher goes about inspiring the next generation of professional naturalists and amateur nature lovers. Moran’s a natural at identifying what children need to learn, organizing that body of knowledge and igniting the spark of fun and fascination.
“You don’t just dummy down an adult program for kids,” he said. “As long as you help them see that this is something they want to learn, they’ll do the learning – and they’ll take it home to mom and dad.”
To that end, Moran has created programs such as Children’s Wetland Storytime, community campfires and wetland walks. His Delta cruise and kayaking programs have enabled kids to experience the Delta directly. Moran believes our natural treasures should be more than lovable in the abstract; we must be allowed to love them up close and personal.
Wallace Stegner wrote that “culture is a pyramid to which each of us brings a stone.” Mike Moran might pass off his stone as small. But take a walk with him and you’ll get a double dose of the charisma of the natural world, where the most remarkable and unscheduled things can happen – in your own neighborhood.
Just get out there. Who knows? Maybe some birds of prey will show up and put on an air show.
To learn more about the Big Break Regional Shoreline and its Visitor Center, visit www.ebparks.org/parks/big_break or call 510-544-3050.