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Cathy Free: Going cuckoo over finches and falcons on the fourth floor

SHARE Cathy Free: Going cuckoo over finches and falcons on the fourth floor
Our vacations are always planned around birds.

SALT LAKE CITY – By now, the neighbors are used to the sight of the couple on the fourth floor, gazing out at the city with high-scope binoculars.

With the exception of the guy who barbecues on his balcony in boxer shorts, there’s a spectacular drama playing out daily for those who decide to look up.

From the sharp-shinned hawk patiently pulling feathers from its prey in a bare cottonwood tree, to the three-toed woodpecker, interrupting the stillness of a frosty morning from a downtown telephone pole, Jeanne Le Ber and Ray Smith are treated every day to a free nature show from their veranda.

They never intended to become obsessed bird watchers after they wandered upon Utah’s Bear River refuge 33 years ago, but it happened. Now, they can’t go anywhere without binoculars, cameras and songbird recordings to attract chickadees, finches and juncos.

On Jan. 1, while most everyone else was sleeping off the effects of midnight revelry, Ray and Jeanne were donning extra woolen layers at 7 a.m. to lead other dedicated birders at the annual Jordan River New Year’s Day Bird Count.

For 20 years, they’ve coordinated the tally near the Salt Lake and Utah County border, counting every visible hawk, falcon, duck, goose, owl, thrasher and songbird in a 15-mile radius for the National Audubon Society’s annual North American bird census.

“We couldn’t imagine starting out the year doing anything else,” says Jeanne, 60, who works as a librarian when she isn’t staring at treetops.

She and Ray wanted to meet for a Free Lunch down the street from their condo at the Deseret Edge pub (a ham sandwich for Ray and cheese enchiladas for Jeanne) to talk about their passion for everything feathered. “Getting up early for the bird count is a great way to add 20 or 30 birds to your list on the first day of the year,” says Jeanne.

She and Ray, 70, a retired cook, have each seen several hundred species of Utah birds (312 for Ray, 310 for Jeanne) and would be tempted to fly from state to state counting birds like the bewitched birders in the movie, “The Big Year,” if they didn’t have bills to pay and hot chocolate to drink at Ruth’s Diner on bird outings in Emigration Canyon.

“We did a ‘Big Year’ in Utah once,” says Ray, an Arkansas native with bushy gray eyebrows who still speaks with southern charm. “We went out every weekend and holiday and saw 225 species in the state that year for $2,400. But if you were to do a ‘Big Year’ across the country, you’d have to spend about $100,000.”

Although he and Jeanne weren’t bird-watchers when they met in Yellowstone National Park 35 years ago (Ray was a cook at the Old Faithful Inn; Jeanne was a waitress), it didn’t take long for them to discover the joys of looking skyward with a high-powered scope.

“It’s addicting, even though we spend hours out in the cold,” says Ray. To warm up this winter, he and Jeanne are planning a trip to southern Texas to see the Green Jay, a colorful tropical bird with a blue crest.

“Our vacations are always planned around birds,” adds Jeanne, who has taken her binoculars to Belize, Peru, Panama, Costa Rica, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. “But really, we’re lucky to live in Utah. A lot of people complain about the smell of the Great Salt Lake, but it’s one of the best places in the world to see a large variety of birds.”

Now if only somebody would fulfill Ray’s dream and call in a sighting of the elusive yellow-billed cuckoo.

“It’s rare because of loss of habitat — it’s been on my list for years,” he says. He smiles as he recalls the last time one of the rare birds was spotted downtown.

“The peregrine falcon pair that nests in the city were eating up yellow-billed cuckoos,” he says. “They’d tear off their heads and drop them down to the sidewalk. Here, I’d never been able to find one and these falcons were just going to town.”

It doesn’t seem fair, admits Ray, but it only adds to the challenge. In 2012, he is determined that the yellow-billed cuckoo will be bird No. 313 on his list.

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