Sunday, February 18 , 2018, 10:19 am | A Few Clouds 58º


Karen Telleen-Lawton: From Birds to Whales, Counting Season Is Beginning Again

You'd be surprised, there's so much to be done
Count all the bees in the hive
Chase all the clouds from the sky.
— “Return to Pooh Corner” by Kenny Loggins

Never mind that we don’t exactly want rain clouds chased from the sky these days. While Christopher Robin passes the time in the luxurious childhood endeavor of aimless play, he is actually exploring an important scientific method of discovery: counting.

What does counting tell us? Over time, counting plants and wildlife reveals facts such as populations, the health of species, their home ranges, and changes and correlations among all of these factors. Santa Barbara is a hotbed of counting in the skies, on the terrain and in the sea. The counts are often in service of “the science of the seasons” — phenology.

Phenology is the study of seasonal or periodic bio­logical events such as plant leaf-out and flowering, insect emer­gence and animal migration. With funding from the National Park Service Climate Change Response Program, UCSB and the NPS are developing and testing protocols to support long-term phonological monitoring. Santa Barbarans are busy counting on fingers, counters, cell phone apps and statistical estimators in all of these areas.

One creature I count informally is tarantulas. These large, docile spiders have a famous seasonal migration across the Santa Ynez Valley. If you live in the foothills, you’ve doubtless encountered the males in the fall crossing roads and yards seeking females. You may think them creepy, but they’re nice critters.

Monarch butterfly migrations have captivated biologists in the recent years. Speculation was rampant during the 2013 migration, when the overall national count was up, but the popular Santa Barbara-area wintering spots were largely skipped. Their next expected appearance begins Dec. 1, so check online.

The Christmas Bird Count is a favored way to spend the holidays for Santa Barbara birders. Last year’s count was 10 percent below typical. Count compiler Rebecca Coulter lamented, “My birding morning on count day was like a tomb.” Still, locals spotted more than 37,000 birds of 222 species — the highest tally in California and second highest in the nation. The upcoming count date is Jan. 3.

The gray whale migration has attracted dozens of citizen spotters in the last decade. Last year was the 10th annual gray whale count, with volunteers taking shifts from February through May to count 1,036 gray whales, including 226 babies on their first journey from their birthing grounds in the lagoons of Baja. Spotted on land or sea, these are impressive creatures.

From birds to whales, the counting season is beginning again, as nature continues to take its course despite our desire to bend it to our collective will. Counting helps us understand nature, deepening the data bank and allowing scientists to tease apart factors such as drought, climate change, natural variation and plant/wildlife interactions. The more basic data we have, the more confidence we can gain about spotting trends amid variable events.

If Christopher Robin were around, he’d know that bees themselves have been the subject of intense scrutiny and counting over recent years, due to colony collapse. While counting all the bees in the hive won’t solve the problem, understanding bees and their interactions with plants, other bees and chemicals in the environment will help us restore an ecosystem that functions for all of us.

So count on, Christopher!

— Karen Telleen-Lawton’s column is a mélange of observations spanning sustainability from the environment to finance, economics and justice issues. She is a fee-only financial advisor ( and a freelance writer ( Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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