Backyard Birding

Words by Sheri Baer

Photos by Annie Barnett / Rick Morris

Words by Sheri Baer

From her home perched above San Carlos, Bonnie Regalia raves about the view. But it’s not the expansive vista out to the Bay you’d expect. “We look to the Western hills, which is much more pleasing,” she explains. “It’s woodsy, it’s outdoors. It’s more of what I’m about: nature.”

Most of all, Bonnie’s backyard provides a dynamic spectacle she never tires of watching. She’ll spot chestnut-backed chickadees with their dark caps and white cheeks and listen for the repetitive chatter-like call of the oak titmouse. She delights in finches (American gold, lesser gold and house), which are flockers. “If you get one finch, you’ll get 12,” smiles Bonnie. Then there are the migratory visitors like orioles and cedar wax wings, which “look like they’re individually painted!” And, of course, the hummingbirds—the black-chinned and Allen’s that zip through in the spring and summer as well as the stunning Anna’s, which provide entertainment year-round.

Image by Annie Barnett / Cover Image by Rick Morris

“The show is continually changing,” she remarks. “This is one of the greatest places to bird in the United States because we’ve got everything.”

Bonnie’s passion for backyard birding isn’t just a hobby—it’s also her profession. As the longtime owner of Birder’s Garden in San Carlos, she takes pride in running a one-stop shop for Peninsula backyard bird and wildlife lovers. Along with providing expert advice, Bonnie stocks seed especially selected for local birds, houses, nesting boxes, feeders, bird baths… and every imaginable accoutrement for creating feather-friendly habitats. Located on El Camino Real with an additional back alley entrance, Bonnie notes that there is no natural foot traffic on her block. “We have to be good enough at what we do to make it a destination,” she says. “People have to want to come here.”

Bonnie traces her own path to the Birder’s Garden back to the shores of Lake Michigan. With family roots in farming and agriculture, she reveled in a childhood grounded in nature. “It was kind of like living in the Farmers’ Almanac,” she reflects. “We’d say, ‘There’s the first robin—spring’s coming!’ or ‘The migratory birds are going out—winter’s coming.’ If a storm was coming in, the lake seagulls would move inshore. We watched and talked about these things.”

Image by Rick Morris

After a Michigan childhood friend graduated from Stanford in 1968, Bonnie came out to visit—which inspired her own western migration the next year. She took a job with Carnes Piano in Palo Alto, before moving into accounting work for Silicon Valley startups. In 1996, divorced with two daughters, Bonnie read in a Wild Bird Center newsletter that the San Carlos backyard birding store was for sale. “My philosophy is that there are no coincidences in life,” she says. With support from the previous owners, the Small Business Administration and Wild Bird Centers of America, she swooped into the retail world with a resolute mindset: “I don’t do, ‘What if?’ ‘What if it doesn’t go well?’ Well, you’ll figure it out.”

Given that nearly a quarter-century has passed, Bonnie certainly did. Rather than a mom-and-pop, she became the successful proprietor of a single-mom brick and mortar. In the early years, her daughters would join her after school. “They’d help in the store and they’d start their homework. And then we’d all go home for dinner,” she recounts. “It really was meant to be.”

Image by Rick Morris

When the Wild Bird franchise agreement expired in 2006, Bonnie continued to operate independently under the new name, “Birder’s Garden.” An aptly descriptive moniker, the store invokes an all-things-that-flap-their-wings oasis. Enter from the back alley and you’ll pass through stacked rows of seed—in nearly 20 varieties, with bag sizes ranging from 5 to 50 pounds. (Birder’s Garden delivers to the entire Peninsula including the coast.) Will it be Backyard Basic, Songbird or Finch Blend? Dove & Quail or Nyjer Thistle? “There’s four and a half tons of seed here,” comments Bonnie. “And I have another half a ton coming in this morning. We sell three to five tons every week.”

“The mealworm came in,” calls out Caroline Spinali, who provides a steady staffing presence in the store. Bonnie nods in acknowledgement as she passes hanging displays of multi-shaped bird houses, hummingbird feeders and racks of hooks, poles and baffles. Bonnie realizes that the menagerie of avian-related products can be overwhelming. That’s where the education component comes in. Bonnie sees every customer interaction as an opportunity to impart knowledge and accurate information.

Image by Annie Barnett

“The backyard birding industry basically started on the East Coast,” she reveals, “and they still don’t recognize that not everything applies to the West Coast.” Not only does she rewrite and localize brochures, she also evaluates every item before offering it for sale. She gestures to a cast-off feeder sitting in her office. “I would never put that on my floor,” she says. “The squirrels are going to eat the plastic, and the plastic portals are going to come out of that in the first week.” Conversely, she points to a western bluebird box that earned her stamp of approval. “I had input into this,” she shares. “It has a longer roof and right-sized hole. It’s also protected so that a predator can’t get into it.”

After decades in the business, Bonnie appreciates the common values she shares with her customers. “They’re my people,” she observes. “We all care about nature. We all care about taking care of the environment.” For Bonnie, that means supporting and bolstering our Peninsula habitat. “What do you need in your yard? Native plants,” she advises. “Let things grow.” Citing factors like seasonal scarcity and tree removal, she views Birder’s Garden as a partner in supplementing essential food, water and shelter. In return, backyard birding delivers a spectacular display of colorful plumage and antics—set to a melodic soundtrack of chirps, trills and whistles. “Birds are also pollinators, and they eat insects, so they’re a good thing to have around,” Bonnie adds.

Image by Rick Morris

Even now, with her daughters grown and flown and five grandsons, Bonnie has no immediate plans to pass the backyard birding baton. She continues to relish her San Carlos hilltop perspective—amplified by all-weather, hummingbird, peanut, suet, niger and ground feeders, four bird baths and even a squirrel feeder—and cherishes the rhythm of her days in the store. “I like what I’m doing,” she affirms. “And I like the cause: backyard birding and taking care of wildlife. Why would I retire?”

Friendly to Feathers:

Homemade Suet Recipe

Rich with oils and proteins, suet is a high-energy food. There are lots of birds—like insectivores—that won’t come to a seed feeder. Especially beneficial in fall and winter, suet attracts feathered species like woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and wrens.

1 cup chunky peanut butter
2 cups vegetable shortening
1 cup flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup coarse cornmeal
1 cup sunflower chips
medium-crushed egg shells