Locals take part in Great Backyard Bird Count
by Chris O’Neal | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s hot. That’s the consensus at Camino Real Park on a Monday morning at around 8:30 a.m. Six or so “birders” are gathered at the east entrance to the park, peering over a fence bordering the Arundell Barranca.
Anticipation is in the air as the enthusiasts, some having been birding for decades, others for much less, ready their binoculars and scan the trees for movement. This meeting, hosted by the Ventura chapter of the Audubon Society, is part of a national event: the Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual undertaking by citizen scientists worldwide, created in 1988 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society.
Adele Fergusson, a regular leader of bird-spotting adventures around the county, has brought a scope and leant me a pair of binoculars for the occasion. I asked what it is she looks for in the trees.
“Movement, mostly movement,” she says. “When you see movement, then you focus in.” Fergusson is on the board of the Ventura Audubon Society and in the fall will become the field trip coordinator. While she is explaining, the group notices a small bird perched on a branch of a eucalyptus tree; it’s a Townsend’s warbler. “That’s the male, and the female is not terribly different.”
Through my binoculars I spot the small yellow and black bird with distinct ovals of black around its eyes, hopping quickly between the leaves. The female is lighter in color than the male, Fergusson explains.
As the group follows the fence down through the park, we pause to take in the spectacle of hundreds of monarch butterflies fluttering between trees, mating, on their way northward. These are California monarchs that typically travel between here and the Sierra Mountains. The butterflies outnumber the birds by far, and one of the group makes mention that the number of birds is much smaller than it had been just four or five years earlier.
“They’re trying to get a handle on how the bird populations are doing,” said Susha of the Backyard Bird Count. The Audubon Society just hosted its Christmas bird count in December, which requires verification of every bird sighting. At this morning’s walk, it’s up to the citizen scientists.
“The whole concept is trying to figure out what the birds are going to do with climate change underway,” said Susha.
In 2014, the National Audubon Society published a report noting that climate change is the “single greatest threat to North American birds,” claiming that 314 North American bird species could lose up to half of their habitat by 2080, thanks in part to rising temperatures. The Audubon Society’s response to the report was to inform its members about ways to lessen their global impact by altering their lifestyles and urging their state legislators to take action on climate change.
“I think there’s a consensus that the birds seem to be moving in a northeast direction, looking for nesting areas, food, water and habitat they can breed in, but the habitats that some birds need aren’t there,” said Susha, which means fewer birds will be in Ventura County as temperatures continue to rise.
The group had grown to around 12 by 9:30 a.m., with a majority being retired women, many of them former teachers. One man, Andre Casanave, brought his son, Maxwell, a 9-year-old cap-wearing boy with a birding book in his left hand and a pair of binoculars around his neck.
“I looked over one day and he was pointing out all of these birds to me and I’m like, ‘How did that happen?’” said Andre of his son. “He’s a bird fanatic. He’s at that age where he can’t absorb information fast enough.”
Max, whose first birding with the Ventura Audubon Society was during the Christmas bird count, fit in like a veteran. He told me of the rare birds that he’s seen in Virginia and of his most sought-after bird, the golden-crowned kinglet. As the group paused to listen to the call of a bird high up in a tree, Max and the group identified it as a red-breasted nuthatch.
“One day I saw a little yellow bird in a bush and I asked my mom what it was, and she got me a bird book,” said Max. “I found out it was a goldfinch, and then I saw some other really cool birds in here and I started getting interested in birds.”
“If he’s starting out this early, he’s going to be a top birder. He even looks like a birder. That’s our future,” said Raeann Koerner, dean of life and political sciences at Ventura College. Koerner has been birding for over 30 years, but admitted that she could have started earlier had she been interested in her grandparent’s outings in upstate New York as a child. “I wish I would have started then.”
When asked if his friends would be interested in joining him on a walk, Max shook his head without hesitation, adding, “no.”
Over the course of two hours, the group spotted 19 different bird species. The four-day event culminates with birders uploading their count via the phone app eBird or online. In 2015, more than 147,000 checklists were submitted worldwide, with over 5,000 distinct species of bird counted.
The data will be used by scientists to get an idea of the status of the world’s bird populations. In Ventura that morning, birders left earlier than usual due to a combination of the unseasonably warm temperature and lack of birds to be seen.
“You just don’t see the number of birds you used to. … It’s probably the drought, I would guess,” said Koerner.
As the group began to disperse, Max approached me with a question. “What is your favorite jay?” he asked, to which I replied, “blue?” Max then began listing off his favorite jays. He and the rest of the group that morning said that they’d return, whether to the same park or elsewhere in the county. For that morning, at least, the birds were seen by those who could appreciate their presence.
The Ventura Audubon Society leads regular field trips and bird watching excursions throughout Ventura County. For more information and a schedule of upcoming events, visit www.venturaaudubon.org. For more information on the Great Backyard Bird Count, visit www.gbbc.birdcount.org.