On the cover:
by BOB DORAN
A flock of Canada geese cruises quietly on the still waters at the mouth of the bay while the pink glow of dawn slowly warms the sky.
I break the silence guessing their numbers at around 200. "Over 300," figures Elias Elias, chief counter of our party of four, and given the fact that he counts birds for a living, I assume his is a better estimate.
We stand quietly again, listening as the calls of shorebirds and waterfowl -- a myriad of birds -- mingle with the din of the nearby sewage treatment plant and the low roar of traffic on Highway 101. In the distance we hear the occasional report of rifles. There are others looking for birds this morning: duck hunters somewhere along the bay shore, outside the bounds of the wildlife sanctuary.
Overhead a huge, mixed flock wheels this way and that, flashing silver as they turn. A pair of peregrine falcons works the outer edges, ready to pick one off. A crow announces his presence in a nearby tree; a large flock of marbled godwits and a lone dunlin idle on an island. [photo below right: Marbled Godwit in flight]
While we are surrounded by thousands of birds of a hundred or more species, Elias' plan, as we start our count, focuses on finding a few individuals of one uncommon, illusive species: swamp sparrows, a small bird found, usually one at a time, in the marsh's grassy patches.
It's a Saturday morning, a week before Christmas, and I was tagging along for Arcata's portion of the National Audubon Society's 105th annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The CBC is a longstanding tradition among birders -- an early winter census of bird species conducted throughout the Western Hemisphere between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 each year.
Volunteers like Elias and his crew work in conjunction with other counting parties to cover a 15-mile diameter circle, tallying every bird they see or hear in a 24-hour period.
North Coast birders count in four such circles. This year the Saturday Arcata count was followed by a Sunday count in Del Norte County, with many Humboldters (including Elias) participating in both. The Willow Creek count took place the day after Christmas; the Centerville count (which includes Loleta, Ferndale and Fortuna) takes place this weekend on Jan. 2.
Elias and another expert birder, Jim Tiestz, led a small group tallying birds in "Area 7" including the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary and a section of the city of Arcata stretching from the bay, north to 11th Street, east to Union Street and west to L Street.
I should point out that I am by no means a birder. I can identify something as obvious as a Steller's jay or an American robin, but show me a chickadee and I'm hard-pressed to tell you whether it's the black-capped chickadee [photo at left] or the chestnut-backed variety. My goal that day was to try not to scare the birds or get in the way of the real birders.
Elias seems to know exactly where to find the swamp sparrows. As we circulate through the network of trails crisscrossing the marsh, we stop in swampy habitat to listen for the bird's distinctive call.
Occasionally Elias would engage in something he called "spishing," an onomatopoetic term that describes a series of hissing "shhh" whispers used by birders to flush out hidden birds. As he explains, the theory is that the sound is some sort of alarm signal.
"The bird pops up thinking, `What's the big concern?' It's the same thing as when a police car shows up in your neighborhood with its alarm blaring. Everyone piles out their door to see what's going on."
Ornithologists suspect that the sound may serve as a rallying cry asking other birds to help defend territory, but they admit that they are just guessing. All they know is that spishing works.
And it did. In our 45-minute breeze through the marsh environs Elias identified four swamp sparrows; by day's end the Area 7 count for the species was 10.
In our quest for elusive sparrows, we come across many other marsh inhabitants, among them five more species of hawk circling or perched atop trees or power poles: a white-tailed kite, a northern harrier, a merlin, an American kestrel and the more common red-tailed hawk.
Filling out our counting party were Bill and Melissa Zielinski, a couple from McKinleyville who had some experience bird-watching -- most of it on the East Coast, long ago. Like me, they had attended the pre-bird count "brush-up" session at a recent Audubon meeting, a slide show that left me totally intimidated.
Stanley Harris, a retired ornithology professor from HSU known to local birders as "Doc," held forth on subjects such as the fine points of differentiation between various species of gull. (Which, I learned, should never be referred to as "sea gulls," since they live on shore and seldom even venture out to sea.)
By chance I was sitting next to the Zielinskis during Doc's talk. I was further intimidated by the fact that while watching the slide show, Bill was whispering the names of most birds to Melissa before anyone in the room had identified them.
Both Zielinskis have degrees in wildlife sciences. Melissa works for the HSU Natural History Museum. Bill is a research ecologist at the Redwood Sciences Laboratory in Arcata. While the lab conducts studies on birds (employing Elias in the process) Bill's expertise is on small carnivorous mammals -- in particular the lifestyles of fishers and martens, relatives of the weasel that dwell in deciduous forests.
"We had a day available so we decided to help count birds," he explained. "I was curious about the bird count when I heard about the `citizen science' aspect of it," he added using a term emphasized in Audubon parlance. "I like the idea of citizen contributions to science. You can get so much information. Although sometimes it's of variable quality, there's this tremendous quantity."
His thoughts echoed those of Ron LeValley, senior biologist for Mad River Biologists. As chief compiler for the Arcata CBC, LeValley oversees the coordination of counting crews and ultimately, submits Arcata's master count to the National Audubon Society, which in turn publishes the data alongside CBC numbers from throughout the Western Hemisphere.
"The bird count is a fun thing, with everybody going out," said LeValley when I called him to arrange to join a counting party. He pointed out that the count is "not really good science" in that "we're not going to the same place every year. The weather affects our ability to count accurately" and counters vary in expertise.
"It's not a scientific method, but on the other hand the fact that it's huge makes up for its inability to detect little things. And when you throw [the data] altogether and ask the correct questions, there's no better way to get the answer.
"It's best for detecting big changes like the range of a species. For example, right now at my feeder there are hundreds of pine siskins. It's a big year for siskins, and it's been three years since they came down here. They show up every few winters."
Using data from the annual bird counts, ornithologists are trying to figure out why the nomadic pine siskins show up in different parts of the United States from one year to the next.
As LeValley points out, all of the CBC data is posted online. "It's the largest data set on bird distribution in the world and it's all public information. You can play for days asking where a species is found in the United States. You can graph the species across the years. Where was that species found ten years ago? Has it changed?" Discerning patterns, researchers can investigate why different species decline or thrive.
Emerging from the edge of the Arcata Marsh we shift our attention to urban birds. We pause for a moment on the corner where a trailer dweller has hung five homemade birdhouses in a tree. [photo above] I wonder aloud if there are local birds that make use of birdhouses and Elias assures me there are, adding with a laugh, "but probably not in that sort of density."
A crow sits atop a high wire pole next to an F Street apartment complex, seemingly oblivious to the oompah of mariachi music coming from a recent model Jeep as a family loads in. Further down the street a black phoebe [photo at left] lights on a telephone phone wire, just asking to be counted. At the barbed wire edge of a pasture by the freeway Elias hears the call of one of those pine siskins down from Canada, and, hot on their trail, we check for them in a patch of teasel.
Exploring behind Safeway, we pursue a dozen European starlings into a space behind some dumpsters. Later, in the soccer field by the Arcata Community Center, we encounter a flock of three dozen.
Harris had told me that starlings are seen in vast numbers every year during the Centerville Christmas count, where he is chief compiler. Last year over 22,000 starlings were counted in the Centerville circle. He briefly touched on how a fan of William Shakespeare introduced starlings into the New World in the 19th century. It seems that groups dedicated to "acclimation" were established across the country towards the end of the century to make immigrants feel more at home. Among them was one headed by New Yorker Eugene Schieffelin, who decided to release into the United States all of the birds mentioned in the works of the Bard. The pairs of European starlings he let loose in Central Park reproduced prolifically to become the most widespread and numerous birds in America.
As we cross the freeway en route to the Arcata Community Center, Elias relates an almost frightening starling experience when the sky filled with birds. "We were coming back from King Salmon just as night was falling and this wide ribbon of starlings flew over. There must have been 30,000 of them."
Elias lives within walking distance of the Arcata Marsh and has been studying the birds that live there for years. Melissa asks if he has noticed any trends -- bird species that have disappeared for example.
Taking care not to make unscientific generalizations, he replies, "I bird in such a small area, it's hard to tell if it's just individuals [that disappear]. For example, I used to see long-eared owls every year, but about four or five years ago I stopped seeing them. I'm not sure if it's just the individuals that wintered here died and just haven't re-colonized. American bitterns are the same thing. I used to see them at the marsh all the time, but I don't think I've seen one there for three or four years."
Elias says he is not a "lister" -- the type of birder who travels great distances in to add a rare species to what is called a "life list," a record of all the species a birder has ever seen.
"There are people who drive quite a bit chasing birds," he says as we walk back towards the center of town. "My environmental ethic says that I shouldn't drive a whole lot, so I try to keep that to a minimum," he adds by way of explanation, but there's more to it than that. He seems more intent on learning all he can about the birds that inhabit the same place he does.
It's no surprise to learn that that Arcata's core downtown area is not exactly popular bird territory. Walking past city hall we see a small posse of crows (four altogether) then we duck down an alley heading for a few sections of Jolly Giant Creek that have been daylighted in recent years, restoring a patchwork of riparian habitat.
We stop in the empty lot across from the Arcata Co-op, looking for birds in the bushes along one of those daylighted creek areas. A pair of crows picking at an apple core in the Co-op parking lot are joined what seems to be a non-descript grayish white gull. Looking up, I see an unusually dark gull. Elias identifies it as a Heerman's gull, seldom seen this far from shore, and compliments me for spotting it. Melissa is wondering about another smaller gull and asks Elias for a "ruling."
After studying the bird for a minute, he notes the size and shifts into analysis. "There's a lot of spangling on the wing cover. It has a diminutive bill, not a hefty meat-cleaver bill like the western gull or the glaucous-winged gull tend to have. That knocks the two largest gulls out of the running. Everything smaller than a California has an accelerated plumage -- it will be in this plumage for only a month or two and once winter rolls around it would already be beginning to have a gray back.
"That leaves the two mid-sized gulls: the herring gull and the Thayer's gull. At this time of year, the herring tends to have a bill like the Heerman's gull, paling at the base with a dark tip, so I feel fairly certain that it's a Thayer's gull."
Certain enough to put this rare species on the list, and possibly face the grilling of his peers? "I think so."
Making our way toward the western boundary of our territory, we come across a pair of red-shouldered hawks perched in the bare branches of a back-yard tree.
From there we head for the wooded area behind the quiet WaterMark/Yakima building, searching for a relatively rare hummingbird that was spotted earlier in the week. While there is no sign of the hummingbird, Melissa spots a covey of California quail (the official state bird). Then Elias hears the distinctive "whit" call of a flycatcher and we see the unremarkable looking little bird disappear into the brush and trees on the other side of the parking lot.
Throughout the day Elias has carried a walkie-talkie, with reports coming in from the marsh on new sightings and general progress. Now he confers via radio with Jim Tiestz, whom he knows spent some time studying flycatchers on the Farallon Islands off San Francisco Bay. Tiestz offers pointers on the difference in calls among several species -- what marks to look for, the shape of the beak -- and Bill and Elias spend 15 or 20 minutes with their binoculars trained on a few trees where the bird is hiding After catching a few glances Elias is "leaning toward" a declaration of dusky flycatcher, but is still not sure. Eventually we give up without getting a good enough sighting to make a definitive identification.
Later that day, Tiestz and Elias return to find the bird again, and between them decide it's a least flycatcher, an "accidental" in winter, not expected more often than every 10-20 years.
Around the time the serious birders are getting their second wind, I'm completely worn out. Resting my tired feet at home in a comfortable chair, I fall asleep -- and dream of birds.
The Redwood Region Audubon Society leads birding tours of the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary every Saturday rain or shine beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the Klopp Lake parking lot at the foot of I Street. They advise bringing binoculars. My advice: Wear comfortable waterproof shoes. For other Audubon birding trips see the Journal calendar or go to www.rras.org.
This Sunday, the Centerville bird count takes place. Call Stanley Harris at 822-3802 to participate.
Have you seen an unusual
Looking at the front of Stanley Harris' Sunny Brae home, you might not guess he's Humboldt County's preeminent ornithologist -- "the man who wrote the book," as someone from the Audubon Society described him. The reference was to Northwestern California Birds, a definitive source work on the subject.
Once inside you know you're in the lair of a birder. They're everywhere: paintings and photos of birds on every wall, carved duck decoys in rows on window ledges and on bookshelves.
After polishing off his bacon and eggs breakfast, Harris settles on a couch in the living room next to a Christmas tree adorned with dozens of bird ornaments.
Relating the local history of counting and studying birds, he begins with the coming of the white man. "Among the first settlers was a guy named Charles Fiebig. He had an interest in natural history, so he started collecting birds and making display mounts out of them. He collected about 1,000 specimens, most of them local." The collection is currently held by Eureka High School.
Why did he collect them? "Just because he was interested in natural history. It was the thing to do, like collecting stamps or bottle caps or anything. I have a theory that the human animal has an innate urge to squirrel things away for the winter, probably a holdover from the need to cache food to make it through lean times. It's ingrained in all of us. Everybody collects something. It comes from the basic urge to save things we might need later on.
"Now we're at a point where we don't have to worry about [saving] food, so we transfer that urge to other things. So whatever captures people's fancy, they will collect. When it was still legal to do it, there was a certain segment of society that collected birds, bird eggs and nests, and made private collections from them."
While their aims were different from birders today, Harris contends that, "modern birders are cut from the same cloth. Since it's not legal to collect birds, what they do is keep a life list. That's their collection. I have 157 species on my yard list, that's birds I've seen while I'm standing in my yard. That's my way of fulfilling that collecting urge. I think that's what lists are, they're our collections."
Where does the Christmas Bird Count fit into all of this? "Around the turn of the century, when it was still legal to go out and shoot everything in sight, in New England there was a tradition among hunters to go out and have a competitive `big day' [also called a `side hunt'], where the guy who shot the most birds on Christmas Day would be the winner, with bragging rights and so on. To be in the running you'd have to shoot at least 100 birds.
"People who thought this was kind of an outrageous behavior -- shooting far more birds than anyone could use -- suggested an alternative. A guy named Frank Chapman, from New York, came up with the idea of counting birds rather than shooting them, going into a specified area and seeing how many birds you could count. It was part of a general backlash against things that were going on."
Shooting birds for meat was also big business at the time. "Market hunting caused the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which was probably the most abundant species on the North American continent at one time. They shot them. Then gradually pressure was developed to stop things like that."
There was also a public outcry over the killing of egrets, prized for their plumes by those in the millinery trade who would often invade rookeries, shooting the adult birds and leaving the babies to die -- all for the sake of fashionable women's hats.
Partially in response to pressure from the fledgling Audubon Society, whose chapters were springing up all across the United States, Congress stepped in, passing the Weeks-McLean Law of 1913 and then the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, protecting all migratory birds and their eggs, nests and feathers.
"It basically stopped all collecting," Harris said "The whole protection of birds in North America is based on that treaty."
by Bob Doran
Total Species = 126
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