A partridge on Point Reyes (Point Reyes Light, 12.24.2008)

Great Blue Heron at Abbotts Lagoon

About 200 bird species were spotted during an annual Point Reyes bird count on Saturday. At least 180 amateur and profession birders participated in the 39th Point Reyes Peninsula Christmas Bird Count (PRPCBC), sponsored by Marin Audubon, Point Reyes Bird Observatory and Environmental Action Committee. The event was sponsored by the National Audubon Society, along with Christmas counts in over 2,000 areas across the country.

“This is the largest single census of a vertebrate population,” said Jon Winter, one of the original founders of the PRPCBC. “Nothing comes close to it in the history of the world.”

The count covers 31 localities in a 15-mile diameter circle—including most of the Point Reyes peninsula and extending east to Nicasio and Soulajule—centered at Heart’s Desire Beach in Tomales Bay. Two to 12 counters cover each area.

Area 23—which extends west to Abbotts Lagoon, east to the Historic M Ranch and south on Sir Francis Drake—was led by Mike Parmeter, a retired family practitioner who has birded in Abbotts Lagoon since 1977. When Mike was 12, his mother gave him Peterson’s Guide to Western Birds and let him take half-days off school to study birds.

It was 31 degrees when we met at the Abbotts Lagoon parking lot at 7:30 a.m. The sun began to rise, as we walked toward the water.

“We count every bird—sight and sound,” said Rigdon Currie, a mostly-retired venture capitalist in Inverness Park who has birded on every continent except Antarctica. Currie has joined in the PRPCBC since 1994 and has participated in over 50 CBCs in total. Like Mike, Rigdon earned a boy scout merit badge for bird study when he was 13. “We had to identify 20 bird species. I’ve picked up a few more since then,” said Rigdon, who’s seen over 3000 by now.

A slight frost covered most of the low grasses, the edges of the deer tracks and the rabbit droppings on the ground. At our first stop by the lagoon, several waterfowl swam around just above the surface—two Pied-billed Grebes, a few unidentified scaups, a Ring-necked Duck, Buffleheads and a few American Coots. We continued to circumnavigate the lagoon, while Wendy Dreskin kept a running tally on the species checklist.

By 8:10 a.m. we’d already seen 15 species, including a Cooper’s Hawk, a White-tailed Kite, one Wilson’s Snipe and six Yellow-rumped Warblers.

The Yellow-rumped Warbler was Mateo Delaroca’s 100th life bird—a bird species you see for the first time in real life. Mateo,10, got a high-five from fellow Marin Audubon Junior Birdwatcher Simon Crabill,10. Wendy promised to bake him a cake—a carrot cake, as he requested. Wendy is the founder of Junior Birdwatchers, now in its second year, with 60 members working towards their Junior Birdwatcher Certificate.

Just before 9 a.m. we walked westward, wading through neck-high swale. A Black Phoebe bobbed its tail up and down on the top of a marsh grass. The day was sunny and clear. As we crossed a bridge, Bob Ulvang of San Bruno called out to Wendy, “Twenty White-crowned Sparrows and a partridge in a pear tree.”

A cow in the distance began a duet with a hidden Song Sparrow, while a rabbit rustled in the ungrazed shrubbery. At the edge of a marsh, a Virginia Rail popped its head out of the reeds, ducked back in, popped its head out again and ducked back in. It called out loudly after the rest of the group crowded around the marsh edge. “Now you see me, now you don’t,” Rigdon said.

At the edge of the shore, four little Sanderlings bobbed their heads up and down like little oil rigs. Two Brown Pelicans flew overhead while a coyote jogged away from us in the distant sand dunes. With several scopes lined up facing the ocean, Team Area 23 took a lunch break. A gray whale spouted in the distance. A Snowy Plover scurried across the sand while one wave quickly followed another on the beach. Two dead birds—one grebe and the other unidentifiable, with only its pair of wings left—had washed up on the beach.

Around 12:45 p.m. we headed back. Three White Pelicans flew overhead. “Don’t look up with your mouth open,” Bob reminded us. Around 1:50 p.m., we arrived at a spot off Sir Francis Drake just north of M Ranch. A male and female hawk circled in the air while calling out loudly, apparently in a courtship display. Simon, who has over 200 life birds, saw a Pygmy Nuthatch for the first time.

While we were watching the ducks—diving ducks who pattered on the water before they took off and dabbling ducks who jumped straight into the air when they took off—a big red bull warned us with a deep, loud moo. As we turned around, two ravens were canoodling in a tree while above a bishop pine we saw a sundog—a rainbow ring around the sun.

Around 3 p.m. we came to a marshy strip on the side of the Sir Francis Drake, across from the road that leads to oyster farm. A Virginia Rail called from the cattails and a Sora called several minutes later, followed by yet another Virginia Rail call.

At our final spot for the area, Mike led us into a group of female cows that slowly retreated warily. A few meters away, a Great Blue Heron opened its wings and scared away a cow. A Hairy Woodpecker sat on a fencepost while we stopped to look at bobcat scat with a gopher tooth inside it.

By sunset, Team Area 23 had seen 98 species, including five Great Blue Herons, 17 Northern Flickers, 30 Western Grebes, 158 Brown Pelicans, 345 Ruddy Ducks, one Osprey, a Golden Eagle, a Marbled Murrelet, one Tree Swallow and two Rhinoceros Auklets.

Compilation dinner

Back at the Dance Palace, Pam Ferrari Catering served bleu cheese and walnut salad and cheese tortellini with marinara sauce, while David Wimpfheimer, who has been the PRPCBC compiler for the past 20 years, read through a list of over 200 bird species. As he read, the participants from the PRPCBC shouted “Yes” if they saw that bird in their area. This list always ranks in the top 10 of all CBCs in the country.

There was, however, no response after several of the birds on the list—Cattle Egret, Tundra Swan, Blue-winged Teal, Redhead, Long-tailed Duck, Black Rail, American Avocet, Ruddy Turnstone, Red knot, Jaegers, Loggerhead Shrike and Red Crossbill.

After the reading of the list, a representative from each of the 31 shared some of their experiences from the day.

One group saw 8,500 Buffleheads. In Inverness Park, there were 110 Anna’s Hummingbirds—at 10 hummingbird feeders.

David DeSante, president of Institute for Bird Populations, led Area 25, which includes North Beach. “We didn’t see a lot of the expected birds,” he said.

Rich Stallcup, a Point Reyes Bird Observatory naturalist, led the Olema Marsh trip. His group saw 98 species, including several add-ons to the list—Eastern Phoebe, Palm Warbler, Wilson’s Warbler, a Red-naped Red-breasted Sapsucker hybrid and Hammond’s Flycatcher.

The unofficial tally was 200 species. “It just shows the tremendous diversity of habitat in West Marin,” said Tom Gaman, this year’s co-compiler. According to Jon, this is only the ninth time the PRPCBC has seen over 200 species.

A foil to hunting

Frank Chapman, an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, began the first CBC around 1900. “Hunters used to get together in the winter time and shoot everything in sight,” Jon said. “Then they threw the bodies into a pile. The one that shot the fewest had to buy booze for everyone else.”

“People used to shoot promiscuously,” Mike said. “So Chapman decided that his protest would be to go out and count birds.” Rigdon added, “It was intended to be a foil to hunting.”

The bird counts used to be called Christmas Sidehunts, and the CBC became a festive tradition. “The idea is basically conservation driven,” Jon said.

In the 1950s, there were two counts in West Marin—the Tomales Bay and Drakes Bay CBCs. Jon and Rich combined the two count circles and redrew the boundary.

CBCs around the country count between three to over 200 species of birds. “To get 200, you have to be on a coast and you have to be southern,” Jon said. The average count for PRPCBC is 195, with about 114,000 individuals.

The cumulative species total for the PRPCBC throughout the years stands

at 287.

The CBC monitors changes in bird populations over time, according to Wimpfheimer. But weather, skill level, effort and other factors make the use of CBC data unreliable for judging population trends.

“It is valid if you learn how to deal with the noise in the dataset; then you can find a trend,” Jon said.

With the CBC at 109 years old, there’s a long record on what kinds of birds there are. “With that kind of data built up over time, we’re able to see shifts in populations—changes in bird species that might be attributed to developing, silting and changes in agricultural practices said John Longstreth, co-compiler this year.

“Most of the area in the Point Reyes count is on public land, so the numbers will stay pretty much the same,” Jon said. “Except that the east side of the circle is getting developed, and we’ve seen

some decline.”

Numbers from the PRPCBC online at http://www.forestdata.com/cbc in January.

~ by Janet Fang on December 28, 2008.

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