Friday, December 20, 2013

Only in SCV: Christmas Bird Count

Somewhere in Placerita Canyon there's a bird called a Phainopepla--there are probably several of them, actually. The males are glossy black, sport a shaggy crest like a cardinal, and look at you with blood-red eyes. While their appearance is unfamiliar and striking, their habits are warm and endearing: you usually find them hanging out near clumps of mistletoe. Indeed, mistletoe berries are a mainstay of their wintertime diet, so you should always be ready to kiss whomever it is you take Phainopepla watching with you. There are well over 100 other species of birds that, like Phainopeplas, call the SCV home for the winter. From Golden Eagles to Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Cassin's Kingbirds to Ruby-crowned Kinglets, we have so much to see this time of year.

This, then, is my annual exhortation to join in the Santa Clarita Christmas Bird Count. It's being held on Monday, December 23rd. The official reason you do the count is to continue the 114 year tradition of counting and identifying wintering birds. The National Audubon Society compiles count data from well over 1,000 count circles across the nation, giving us an idea of how the birds are doing--an annual report card, if you will, that helps prioritize conservation efforts and identify population trends through the decades. But the real reason you do it is because you're a birder and like this sort of thing or because you're curious. If the thought of nature entices rather than repulses, and if you can count without using your fingers and toes, and if you like doing things that are weird but not too weird, then you should really give it a go. Based on past years, here's the schedule you can expect:

400am: The crazies will look for owls and poorwills--birds of the night. (Does anyone have a good owl spot to recommend?)
645am: People will begin trickling into Western Bagel wearing earth-toned attire and clutching binoculars. They tend to flock together.
700am: Count compiler Dan Cooper, a slim and sarcastic father of two who doesn't even live in the SCV, will help two-dozen or so people (most of whom drove in from LA) figure out count assignments so that all the good birding spots in Santa Clarita get covered. There are already birders doing Castaic Lake by this point, but there will be cars heading to Placerita, Bouquet, Towsley, the Santa Clara River, and even urban hotspots like city parks, golf courses, and College of the Canyons.
715am: The flock disperses as small groups. In each group, there's at least one person who knows all the birds by sight and sound, but even total birding novices can help by keeping the list or tallying all the ravens that fly by. Santa Clarita residents are particularly helpful because they can navigate--even people from the nearby SFV are utterly ignorant of Claritan highways and byways. They probably think it's still call San Fernando Road. You forgive their ignorance.
830am: You start running into the dog walkers and joggers, most of whom just ignore you, some of whom look quizzically, and a few of whom insist on talking with you for 5 minutes about the California Condor they just saw fly over and how they see them all the time and how they certainly don't seem endangered (it was actually a Turkey Vulture, you politely point out).
1000am: You keep seeing the same kinds of birds over and over, your list hovering around 60 species. But then, wait, oh, that can't be, but yes, it has wing bars and an eye-ring and buffy flanks so it see a really rare bird and are reinvigorated. The sighting, if particularly good, is immediately forwarded to all other birders who will try to see the rarity for themselves after lunch.
1230pm: With a great sense of satisfaction, you head to Tacos y Burritos el Pato (the one restaurant in town named for a bird) for lunch. You smirk, recalling Lady Ducayne's favorable review of the restaurant, LD being that local food blogger who says nothing in Santa Clarita is good enough and wishes it were all more like LA but never tells you exactly what's wrong with it all. Am I right?, you ask. The other birders don't know what you're talking about, so you just order some tacos.
100pm: Cooper reads through his checklist of bird species likely for the count--there are 150 or so. Every group that observed the species says "yes" (Mayor Laurene Weste, if she joins, will say "aye") when the name is read. "Common Loon?" "Yes" say the people from Castaic. "Common Raven?" "Yes" says every group. "Loggerhead Shrike?" Silence--people shake their heads, knowing this bird of open spaces is having a hard time hanging on.
130pm: The count finishes with ballpark 130 species seen and a total of many, many thousands of individual birds. You are satisfied, and now debate whether you're going to do the LA count, too.

Are you still reading--really? If so, you ought to go. Meet at 7am sharp at Western Bagel on Valencia Boulevard. Bring binoculars if you have them, and prepare to get birdy.

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