December 23, 2017. I jolt awake at 3 a.m. Was that a Great Horned Owl calling? I strain to listen without getting out of bed, without opening a window. I can’t be sure. Better not count it. In vain, I try to go back to sleep. At 4:30, I finally get up even though it’ll be dark for another two hours. Time to get this day started—the annual Oceanside/Vista/Carlsbad Christmas Bird Count! And one hour later, standing on our patio in the pre-dawn darkness, I hear it for certain. Since our house lies in the area we’re assigned to survey, Great Horned Owl will be our first bird tallied for the day.
In the late 19th century, the Christmas “Side Hunt” served as a festive holiday tradition. People chose teams and ventured out to shoot (read to kill) as many creatures as they could. The side with the largest pile of fur and feathers at the end of the day claimed victory. Frank Chapman, from the newly formed Audubon Society, wanted to provide an alternative activity to highlight the importance of conservation and threats to bird populations. So on Christmas Day, 1900, 27 hardy volunteers at 25 sites across North America ventured forth to count all of the birds they could find—alive. The tradition of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) had arrived.
Held annually between mid-December and the first week of January, the CBC now sends out tens of thousands of volunteers across the Western Hemisphere to take a census of each bird they see or hear, within a 15-mile-diameter “count circle,” during one 24-hour period. People travel in all sorts of weather on foot, by car, in a motorboat, on skis, by snowshoe, in a kayak, by bicycle—and sometimes, various combinations of these. Folks lucky enough to live within the count circle can just stay snug and cozy, reporting all the birds they see at their feeders that day.
My husband and I were founding members of a mountain CBC in Colorado. For 12 years, we tramped around our assigned area every December, in sunshine, rain, snow, frozen fog—even starting at -5o F one time. When we moved to Oceanside in 2016, our first CBC in “sunny” SoCal offered cold, increasing-to-a-downpour rain, grinding the day’s birding to a soggy halt at 10:00 a.m. After sitting out the deluge in the car, we finished up the remaining sites in a steady, drippy, dreary drizzle. But we did chalk up a few more waterfowl species, all of which probably thought the weather was just fine. Lucky them.
Despite all those years of CBCs at an altitude of 7200’ in the shadow of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, our most miserable CBC birding weather occurred, ironically, in Oceanside.
Thankfully, our 2017 CBC weather improved. (Seriously, how could it not?) We arrived at the meeting spot in Anstine Audubon Preserve with fresh-baked scones for our three other team members. Our group had four primary areas to cover before noon. At Anstine’s 11 acres, we hoped to find the two pairs of Hooded Mergansers hanging at the pond lately. No such luck. But in addition to the usual suspects, we did notch an unexpected Virginia Rail calling from the cattails and a covey of 15 California Quail scampering across the path. Rancho Guajome Park produced a vast group of Rock Pigeons (137!) and a large mixed flock of American Pipits, Killdeer, and Western Meadowlarks. Although a different group covered most of the park, the upper pond of Guajome Regional Park offered us a lone Hooded Merganser. And my favorite moment of the day. As the group walked past a small, heavily vegetated creek, I commented, “This is a lovely spot but we’ve never found any birds here.” With that sentence barely out of my mouth, a brown, striped bird tiptoed from the conduit under the path. I froze and whispered to the group, “snipe. Snipe. SNIPE.” The Wilson’s Snipe stayed just long enough to give all of us great looks at this stunning but stealthy wetlands bird. At our final stop, we checked out Hidden Lake, the small pond below our house, hoping for at least a subset of the more than 16 Wood Ducks we had been seeing there recently. We found only three, but they were enough to account for 50% of all of the Wood Ducks reported in the entire circle that year. With our modest species total of 49, our Wilson’s Snipe and Virginia Rail also each accounted for 20% of those species’ totals in the full circle. All from our small, rather underwhelming little subarea! You just never know what you’ll find.
Around noon, representatives from each of the 21 areas of the count circle began gathering at the Buena Vista Nature Center for a delicious chili lunch and a provisional species total. That roll call tallied 181 species, even without the report from the folks still out counting the pelagic birds offshore. Once those results were folded in, the final total came to 193 species. Good enough to come in 2nd among the 6 CBCs in San Diego County, behind San Diego (217). Ranch Santa Fe came in a close 3rd (190). Not too shabby for lil ol’ North County.
This year’s event happens on Saturday, December 29. Last year, 115 generous volunteers participated in the Oceanside/Vista/Carlsbad CBC. You might think that you need to be an amazing birder to help out in this effort, but you really don’t. REALLY! If you’d enjoy a group of enthusiastic but less experienced birders, join the folks surveying Buena Vista Lagoon and the vicinity around the Nature Center. Honestly—if you can spot a bird and point at it, you can help! A bit more experience and confidence? A group elsewhere in the count circle can use you. Contact Jane Mygatt (firstname.lastname@example.org) by December 12, if possible, to find a group that needs your help and fits your interests. Come start a new holiday tradition. We’ll see you there