“Armed With Opera-Glass and Note-Book”

The notes contained in this book were taken from March to May, 1889, and from March to July, 1894, at Twin Oaks in southern California.

From preface to A-Birding On A Bronco, by Florence A. Merriam

A-Birding On A Bronco is a remarkable book by a remarkable person. Florence Augusta Merriam Bailey (as she would be known professionally after her 1899 marriage to Vernon Bailey) was a pioneer in the fields of ornithology and nature writing. Her first book, Birds Through An Opera Glass, published in 1889, is considered the first modern field guide for birdwatchers.

At a time when most bird study was still based on studying specimens killed and brought into a laboratory, Bailey preferred to study them in the wild, on foot or horseback.

“I had no gun, but was armed with opera-glass and note-book,” she says on page one of A-Birding On A Bronco, her third book, published in 1896.

The Twin Oaks Valley, today part of San Marcos, then held the homestead of Florence’s uncle, Major Gustavus Merriam. Originally from upstate New York, Gustavus was the first European-American to settle in the area, in 1875. He’d named his ranch Twin Oaks after two joined 70-foot oak trees on the grounds. By the time that Florence and her father Clinton Merriam, who still lived in New York, came to visit in 1889, the name Twin Oaks had come to be applied to the whole valley.

Here’s one of the book’s illustrations, which were done by Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the best ornithological illustrators of the day:

The Little Lover

Here’s a photo of Augusta Merriam Bailey from a 1904 issue of The Condor, an ornithological journal:


Bailey offers detailed observations of valley birds hunting, nesting, singing. She writes with the sensibility of a scientist, but with a humanistic and poetic sensibility as well.

“From the ranch-house,” she begins in one early passage, “encircled by live-oaks, the valley widened out, and was covered with orchards and vineyards….It was a veritable paradise for the indolent field student. With so much insect-producing verdure, birds were everywhere at all times.”

Bailey waxes almost lyrical: “Flocks of migrating warblers were always to be found here: flycatchers shot out at passing insects; chewinks scratched among the dead leaves and flew up to sing on the branches; insistent vireos cried tu—whip’ tu-whip’ tu-whip’ tu-wee’-ah, coming out in sight for a moment only to go hunting back into the impenetrable chaparral…”

And there are impressionistic, almost sensuous descriptions of the valley at sunrise and sunset. Here’s one example:

In the East we are accustomed to speak of ‘the peace of evening,’ but in southern California in spring there is a peculiar interval of warmth and rest, a langorous pause in the growth of the morning, between the disappearance of the night fog and the coming of the cool trade wind, when the southern sun shines full into the little valleys, and the peace of the morning is so deep and serene that the labor of the day seems done. Nature appears to be slumbering. She is aroused slowly and gently by the soft breaths that come in from the Pacific.

And that’s just the first half of the paragraph. A sunset description is just as good. See for yourself. The book is in the public domain at www.archive.org .


Upcoming History Events

Every second Tuesday of the month the San Diego History Center invites local community and cultural groups to celebrate their history with exhibits in the center’s atrium. This Tuesday, April 8 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., north county communities will be represented. For further info visit http://www.sandiegohistory.org/calendar/detail/57836 .


The Rancho Bernardo Historical Society’s Speakers Series will present a free program featuring Jack Larimer, Director of the Vista Historical Society and Museum, on Wednesday, April 16, at 10 a.m. For details visit http://www.rbhistoricalsociety.org/ .



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