Counting the Days, Counting the Birds

Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Revelers,

It has been three days since some of us celebrated the darkest day of the year and the beginning of increasing light.  If any of you are looking for a quiet way to celebrate this time of year, I recommend reading John Muir’s chapter on the Water-Ouzel in his book “The Mountains of California”.  It is an astonishing essay written by a wild-nature ecstatic about a bird who –  like Muir himself –  sings joyfully amidst the coldest, snowiest, most blustery surroundings.    I am going to have a traditional family Christmas this year, for which I am very grateful.  But I have loved my quieter holidays reading that revealing essay – which offers the perfect window into Muir’s soul, and into the soul of the  Ouzel. It’s all about singing  hallelujah through the hard times.  Click here to read it online and see a photo of this small and nondescript bird.

One of the best parts of the Christmas season for me is the Annual Christmas Bird Count, a tradition dating back to 1900 when U.S. ornithologist Frank Chapman introduced the idea of counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them! What a great idea.  This year as I birded my regular patch on the urban river, I got to see my first BONAPARTE’S GULL, thanks to Jeff Manker, my co-CBC birder.  This gull is a smaller and more graceful version of the larger, much more common  WESTERN AND CALIFORNIA GULLS. Jeff also helped me sort these out.  Thanks Jeff!

Bonaparte’s Gull, San Lorenzo River downstream from Soquel Bridge, December 14 2019 (Christmas Bird Count) Photo by B. Riverwoman

On that first historical count, 27 counters counted 90 species.    Today  thousands of volunteer birders,  from across the country and the world,  fan out into every birdy nook and cranny, doing our best to count every single pigeon and every single gull we lay eyes on during the designated days and hours. Click here  for more info on this wonderful tradition – the earliest and longest running example of citizen science in the country.

Here in Santa Cruz County, those who count owls are up long before dawn, those who count offshore birds hire a boat and set out to sea for the day.  The rest of us try to keep going all day from sunrise to sunset.  Then, at the end of the day, the thirteen tired team leaders of the Santa Cruz County area, plus as many team members as are still awake, gather to share food and report  on this year’s results.  This year we found 161 species,  low for our area.  The lowest counts during the past ten-year period were 161 in 2010 and 163 in 2012.  The highest count for this same period was 174 in 2013 and 2017.

As I mentioned above,  I lucked out this year.  I got paired with Jeff Manker to cover the San Lorenzo River from the trestle up to Highway 1 and then beyond to beind the Tannery.   I didn’t know Jeff before count day, but learned that he was taking over this coming fall as the new President of the Board of the Monterey Birding Festival.  He has also taught an ornithology class at Gilroy High School (kudos to Jeff and to Gilroy) and is currently working on a high school ornithology curriculum for the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory.

Female Purple Finch,, note distinctive broad white eyebrow and white auricular area, very different from female House Finch. Google Image.

It seemed to me that Jeff saw four times as much as I saw in a fraction of the time it took me to find a bird.  I learned a lot from him.  With his finely-honed high school teaching skills, he managed to help me overcome not only my mental block about gull identification, but got me to identify my first female PURPLE FINCH.  I loved my first meetings with the delicate BONIPARTE’S GULL and the sweet-faced MEW GULL two gulls who are here only during the winter month.

After 3 hours I temporarily left to attend a meeting, but Jeff pushed forward, returning to the Laurel St. Bridge area to find the TROPICAL KINGBIRD, a rarity which has been hanging out in the vicinity for several weeks now. I saw the same species in the approximately the same area 3 years ago and took this photo.   Later he went back and found the reclusive SORA near the Soquel bridge, also almost the exact area where I spotted a Sora in 2014.

Tropical Kingbird, San Lorenzo River, downstream from Soquel Bridge, October 2017 Photo by B. Riverwoman
Sora, San Lorenzo River, well concealed in tules on east side of river between Soquel and Laurel St. Bridges, August, 2014, Photo by B. Riverwoman

In the afternoon, it was great to have you, Jane, join our team as we continued upstream from the Tannery.  Approaching the river through Evergreen Cemetary on Ocean St. Extension, I got to see my first flock of BLUEBIRDS of the year.  For the list of species identified in our sub-section of the San Lorenzo River, click here  We found a total of 48 species ( 1147 individuals)  including six species of gulls.

The dramatic tradition at the evening gathering features the lead organizer reading  the name of each species on the “on list”, pausing after each species name to hear if at least one team has identified it.  For common birds like sparrows and jays, thirteen voices would ring out ‘yes’.  But then, after some names, there was a chilling silence – signifying that there had not been a single sighting.  Two species lost their standing – the Willet will continue to be “on list” but will now be listed as uncommon;  and the Forster’s Tern, who has been missing for five years, will be removed from the list of those we can expect to see in Santa Cruz County  After each silence we were, of course, all wondering if this was just a blip, or a trend.  Was this part of the 3 billion bird loss reported several months ago by Cornell in its ground-breaking study that I wrote about recently?    The concern was palpable among all these bird counters and bird lovers.  I could hear sighs and see folks shaking their heads. .The Water-ouzel is still on the “on list”, having been  sighted on river rapids   in Henry Cowell State Park within the last ten years.   But it  hasn’t been sighted for many years. Will it also be removed from the list in the coming years?

I hope some of you readers, including beginning birders, will consider joining us next year.  All levels of birding can be helpful in counting large numbers and in watching for movement.   The more attention we bring to our birds – and other wildlife, the more we can hope to protect the habitat on which these precious  creatures depend for their lives.

May we all enjoy an enLIGHTening holiday.

Barbara

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.