Greater Egret

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas Bird Count

Prairie Falcon having a snack, Ramona
I went birding today. For the first time. Now many of you are aware that I have long been an admirer of our avian friends. I have dotted these pages with my pictures of raptors for many years. But I am no birder. In birder terms I am what is pejoratively known as a bird watcher. And today I found out that there is a really big difference.

I was invited by my friend Beth Cobb to participate in the yearly Palomar Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. Beth is a birder, blast reader, horsewoman, a docent at the Santa Margarita Ecological Preserve down the street, she also jogs past my place every morning with her beautiful herding dog.

I jumped at the chance to go. By the way there are similar counts taking place all across our great nation. I must admit that I have always wanted to study the curious species known as birders at greater length.

Not that I carry a grudge or harbor any animus but I was once remonstrated by a haughty San Francisco client for confusing a scrub jay and a blue jay and frankly the sting still hurts.

Our group plumbed an area known as the Escondido Section. I now know that this is like High Holy Days for Birders. We were one group of many and several birders in our group had birded our designated "patch" in prior years.

We had a reporter and a photojournalist from the U-T in our group as well as our leader, a very bright woman named Phoenix Von Hendy who obviously really knew her stuff.

We left at daybreak with a couple of Beth's friends, the wonderful Bill and Dianne Atkinson, and headed for our sector, the Santa Maria Valley of Ramona. After watching and listening to these people for a few minutes I quickly realized that the real fascination for me was the birders and not the birding. That I can do at home.

Birders are a bit different and well worth observing. I learned about "needing a bird", lifelists, forked tails (a sobriquet for those unfortunate ducks and geese who have had their plumage creased by hunters who are bad shots), all sorts of new vocabulary and concepts for my cerebral quiver. Birders are a flock apart, a bit nerdy but extremely precise individuals who seem to quietly tend their own nest yet, as I saw, can still get quite nutty over a nuthatch.

These people certainly knew their quarry. Nearly half the birds in our first hour were identified by song alone. And I admit that in this group I was utterly lost. I know a few garden variety birds but I frankly couldn't tell a wren from a nuthatch on my best day. I am okay with big birds but little birds are well, little birds. Or lbb's, little brown birds as they are known in the business. These people had fifty birds on their list before I could identify a crow. My knowledge in this pursuit is as usual, a mile wide and a quarter inch deep.
lbb - little brown bird

Not being able to add much of value on the academic side, I was reduced to making bad bird puns, a pursuit that I indulged in for the better part of the day. Nobody dumped me in a wood rat mound, although we saw many of them and I am sure that they were sorely tempted.

I got the big lens back from Sigma and this was to be my shakedown cruise. They had to change the contact positions so that the 50/500mm would work with my Nikon. Unfortunately the camera acted out all day like a petulant child. I think the autofocus might be askew. Alas, another disastrous day with the camera.

But the day indeed had its moments. Saw a giant bald eagle's nest and then far away, I saw two bald eagle heads popping up in a majestic oak. Should have brought my converter, probably could have taken the shot. Those two white dots on the large oak you see below, sorry but that is all I got. Now that I know where the nest is perhaps I can revisit the area when I get my lens dialed back in. I feel great in their mere presence.

Another birds of interest were a burrowing owl in a large cairn of rocks, a ferruginous hawk, a harrier. mountain bluebirds bopping along the ground and the prairie falcon eating his meal. I really appreciated the birder's scholarship, Phoenix helped educate us with interesting tidbits about bird species behavior. These people know their birds and I learned about all sorts of things like swallow flight engineering, the parasitic nature of the cowbird, just too much stuff to process and share.

Phoenix told us how mockingbirds in the area sometimes liked to torment cats and occasionally pulled out their fur for their nests. She was obviously an all around naturalist. I have lived in the backcountry for over three decades and she was identifying native fauna that I regrettably had no clue about.  She pointed out buckwheat and wild radish and showed us a neat little trick with a native corkscrew and a palmful of water.

It was very interesting to me that bird behavior seemed to have such a vital role in the identification process, on a par with plumage and song. This song swallow is solitary, you must have seen this other swallow that lives in a small flock, that sort of thing. These birders are obviously all around students of nature.

burrowing owl and dark cow
There is an article about our group in today's paper and a condensed online article. I have to blush at the reporter's mistaking me for a birder, knowing now that I have really only earned the lesser mantle of bird watcher. The reporter's husband is in fact an avid birder, who bagged a life bird yesterday. Their two children were good sports and tailed along.

We toured some lovely, remote areas on our trip that were new to me and visited the Heritage Herd of B.L.M. horses. Saw burros and buffalos and the Ramona Grasslands Preserve, also gained access to a reservoir where the true birders miraculously counted and identified just ridiculous numbers of waterfowl of every feather and stripe.

Afterwards we met the rest of the respective sectors of Palomar birding groups at Kit Carson park for the compilation. I saw Ken Weaver, an ├╝berbirder that I knew from his birding near my place on the Santa Margarita River, he led the meeting and read from a long list of possible birds. People would shout out if their group had managed to identify one. Seemed like everybody had a pretty good day. Food and refreshments too.

I sat next to Mike, a great old guy who regaled me with stories about sighting a common blackhawk during the count of 1963, which another birder failed to come over and confirm. Would have been a real coup. The one that got away. We both laughed when I pointed out to him that he was talking about an event that happened fifty years ago. Some defeats one can evidently never forget.

As I have written before and now bashfully am quoted in the paper, San Diego is an epicenter for birding in this country, although getting a handle on exact numbers is quite tricky. I heard that they were ranked both first and second in number of species listed in the country last year. The number fluctuates, I guess depending on the whim of the birds and the independents, the birds known in the trade as vagrants. In any case I have heard that we have roughly 888 bird species in the United States, San Diego County is reported to have somewhere between 492 and 515 of the total number.

I really had a nice time and want to thank Beth for the invitation. She later said that she wasn't sure if she would be able to stand me for a whole day or words to that affect but I must not have been that bad as we all parted friends after a great day spent together. If I am to ascend to birder I see that I shall have to become more diligent in my study.


Anonymous said...

Nothing against birds, but my favorite photo is the burro.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your company and the puns very much. Good day of birding. I forwarded the blog to Ken and Phoenix. Beth

Thomas G Johnson said...

Not to be picky or anything Robert but buckwheat, seeds and other plant material are flora. Animals, bugs and so forth are fauna...

Blue Heron said...

Thomas, I told you I didn't know shit.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Robert - we enjoyed our day with you very much! The laughs you provided made it much easier to cope with our lack of bird knowledge! Enjoying your blog too.. Dianne & Bill