At 9:30 a.m., Dec. 15, 2012, 25 volunteer participants of the Woodfords Audubon Christmas Bird Count met at Woodfords Station to divide into field parties before going to their assigned areas. It was around 30 degrees with several inches of snow on the ground.
The Audubon Society, named after the American woodsman John James Audubon (1785-1851), was founded in 1900. The society's mission is "To conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity." The society's successes include the ongoing recovery of the imperiled California condor and brown pelican, and the return of the bald eagle which demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act works. The nearly 500 local chapters nationwide engage members in grassroots conservation action.
Started in 1900 as an alternative to Christmas Day bird hunts, the CBC is the longest running "Citizen Scientists" survey in the world. The CBC collects vital data which guide scientists and policy-makers in addressing the needs of birds and other wildlife. In the 1980s CBC data were used to document the decline of wintering populations of the American black duck, after which conservation measures were put into effect to reduce hunting pressure on this species. Birds are early indicators of environmental problems which can affect people.
In the 2012 count the $5 participation fee was eliminated, and the information on the Audubon CBC website translated in Spanish. Anyone is welcome to join in the CBC since compilers (organizers) arrange field parties so that the inexperienced are always out with seasoned counters. Every CBC area is a circle 15 miles in diameter; within our local circle were six areas representing various bird habitats: Foothill Road including Fredericksburg and Paynesville, Diamond Valley and Indian Creek Reservoir, Mud Lake area, Faith Valley and surrounding area, Curtz Lake trailhead to the East Fork of the Carson River, Markleeville, including Mulberry Creek, the Sewage Ponds and Grover Hot Springs Meadow.
I spoke with bird-watcher and retired Grover Hot Springs Park Ranger, Paula Pennington, about how to identify birds. She made the following suggestions of what to observe:
n Time of Year
n Behavior: Is the bird's flight direct or undulating? Does it beat its wings rapidly or slowly? Does it forage on the ground on treetops or in bushes? Is it bold or shy? Does it walk or hop? Is it by itself or in a flock? Does it spiral up or down a tree?
• Shape of beak
• Length of tail
• Color: This is unreliable. Males, females and juveniles are usually different colors. Birds sometimes have different colored plumage at different times of the year. Male birds have mating plumage in spring.
• Sound: Recognition of bird songs and calls takes much practice. Songs are mainly sung to attract a mate and claim a territory so are usually heard only in breeding season. Throughout the year we hear bird calls which are used for communication and to express alarm. Calls are often more difficult to recognize than songs.
• A tip about using binoculars: Look at the bird then bring the binoculars to your eyes without shifting attention.
Our group was composed of two local novices, Steve Hibbs and myself, and seasoned bird-watcher, Bill Bianco, from Sacramento. Our area was around the Curtz Lake trailhead to the East Fork of the Carson River. Often we would catch a mere glimpse of a bird or hear tantalizing calls, but see no bird. Bird-watching requires stillness, the willingness and patience to watch and listen. The focus of watching and listening for birds imposes a welcome quietness and slow step. One's senses become sharper, awareness heightened. Even before one becomes more attuned to the ways and appearance of the birds when recognition becomes easier, one can thoroughly appreciate and enjoy the process. The three of us gazed in wonder at the waves of ravens wheeling above us, unable to count accurately because of their constant motion, joining and separating in their enchanting dance.
This was the second bird count for the third local, Kate Harvey, whose field party was in the Markleeville area. Kate and her husband, Richard, have been feeding the birds in their front yard for years. She was concerned that this activity may be causing an undesirable dependence, but Dan Brown of Sacramento, compiler of the Woodfords count and nature photographer, encouraged her to continue to feed. Human intrusion on bird territory decreases the supply of food; this can be partly amended by providing the birds with wild bird seed and suet. Because of global warming some birds are not migrating as much so more food is needed.
Total species counted for Woodfords CBC 2012: 91, a record high.
Virginia York is a Markleeville resident.