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Thursday, January 17 , 2019, 7:57 pm | Fog/Mist 58º


Annual Bird Count Gives Wing Watchers a Glimpse of the Wild

Birders turn out by the hundreds for Santa Barbara Audubon Society's 2013 tally of local species

A winter sun was rising over the fields surrounding Lake Los Carneros in Goleta on Saturday morning when the conversation between four bird watchers halted quickly.

A small falcon swooped to the ground, diving rapidly for its unseen prey.

“It’s a kestrel!” called out Teresa Rounds, one of the birders peering through binoculars to see the bird return to the branch of a tree with its talons full.

Whether the kestrel had caught a mouse or a large insect wasn’t clear through the scope, but the bird’s success was a reminder that the quiet park is still a wilderness for the animals that call its habitat home.

Hundreds of birders, like the ones in Rounds’ group, gathered all across the South Coast on Saturday to document every species of bird they could find as a part of the annual Santa Barbara Christmas Bird Count.

The local event, sponsored by the Santa Barbara Audubon Society, is part of a larger movement that brings out thousands of volunteers in North and South America to count the birds in their communities, adding data to a 112-year study.

The data collected allow researchers and biologists the chance to study the long-term status of bird populations across the Americas. The numbers help paint a picture about how bird populations have changed over the past 100 years.

Last year, 215 total species were reported during the count on the South Coast alone.

The bird count began a century ago as a reaction to the traditional Christmas “side hunt,” in which hunters would take to the countryside and return with as many animals, including birds, as possible.

Ornithologist Frank Chapman began the first count on Christmas Day in 1900 in response. Chapman, an early officer in the nascent Audubon Society, gathered 27 other birders to count that day, tallying about 90 species in different locations.

On the South Coast on Saturday, a group of about 200 “citizen scientists” recorded the birds they saw in an area about 15 miles in diameter.

Between bird spotting and recording, Rounds said, she’s been taking part in the event for 24 years, noting that the area around Lake Los Carneros is a thriving habitat.

“We get 75 or 80 species right here,” she said. “Over time, you get really good information about species decline and expansion. It’s fun but it also has a scientific value.”

Birders, from left, Jeff Simeon, Teresa and Jerry Rounds, and Renee de Jong scope out birds flying through Lake Los Carneros Park in Goleta on Saturday as part of the annual Christmas Bird Count. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
Birders, from left, Jeff Simeon, Teresa and Jerry Rounds, and Renee de Jong scope out birds flying through Lake Los Carneros Park in Goleta on Saturday as part of the annual Christmas Bird Count. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

One trend found by past counts showed that tree swallows had basically disappeared from the South Coast, which observers linked to loss of habitat. The birds traditionally make their homes in woodpecker holes in dead trees, which are often removed.

A birder in Rounds’ group, Jeff Simeon, explained that volunteers from the Santa Barbara Audubon Society were able to do something about it once they detected the problem.

Simeon pointed to two small nest boxes on poles across the field, saying that the group was able to install those, and that the tree swallows had been willing to form nests inside. The conservationists have been monitoring the eggs and the chicks in an effort to restore their presence here.

Simeon, a recent graduate of UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, has also developed an app, called Birdeez, aimed at beginning bird watchers.

The app allows users to enter a bird’s shape, size and color to determine what kind of bird they’re most likely seeing. They can also enter the location and time they spotted the bird, which Simeon said he’d ultimately like to see used in future bird-counting efforts.

“You don’t have to go to the zoo to see amazing animals,” he said. “They’re all around us.”

Rounds’ group joined up with other volunteers to report what they’d seen in a midmorning tally as chocolate-chip cookies and hot chocolate were served out of the back of Rounds’ truck.

There was excitement as one volunteer reported he’d seen a shrike, a predatory songbird known for impaling its prey on thorns before dismembering it into smaller bits. The volunteers voiced their support as sightings of rarer birds were reported from others.

Rounds, who works in web development for Cottage Health System, said the break from a screen to spend time in nature was a welcome respite.

Slowing down enough to notice the birds in their habitats is part of the allure of birding, and the count.

“That’s the joy of this,” she said. “When you do slow down a bit, you’re in tune with the whole picture. It’s refreshing.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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