Thursday, January 6, 2011

Fowl Day for a Christmas Count

I know that a stormy day is typically a "foul" day. But when you are on a Christmas bird count, and it rains three inches, it is a great day for waterfowl (and not much else). I started early with my faithful canine companion, Nike, on our local count day (Saturday, December 18), and it rained on us for most of our walk. (photo) We did see some good fowl (not an oxymoron) - 2 Cackling Geese (photo) on the golf course. They had undoubtedly not been popular on the course due to the little surprises they scattered around the greens and the fairways, but I was certainly glad to see them even if the golfers were not. The geese stood out among a large flock of coots, and none of them seem concerned about the rain.

I waited for awhile at home after our walk and drank hot chocolate, but gave up waiting when the rain would not stop. "To hell with it - I have some bird counting to do," I announced to no one in particular since Nike wasn't listening and my family was out of town. I was suppose to count birds in my neighborhood and adjoining parts of Los Osos and Baywood Park and, by God, I was going to do it.

Being a mixture of quiet single family residences on the edge of the Morro Bay Estuary and having several groves of trees, a golf course, three ponds, and lookouts of the bay, my home town produced many unusual birds in the fall of 2010. Several noteworthy birds had been seen in the area in the week prior to the count, such as Swamp Sparrow, Black-headed Grosbeak and Wilson's Warbler. (These species are not common wintering birds in this area). These were also birds that might be dificult to see in the rain.

The first thing I did aftert my break was check the grove of trees at the end of my street where the above three rarities had been seen, but very few birds were out in the pouring rain - they had more sense than that!
I decided to take a four mile walk around the neighborhoods, and to the various bird lookouts and preserves in Los Osos and Baywood Park. Even if the dicky birds were not out, maybe I'd see a different shorebird, or duck, or something that didn't mind the rain. I wore my rain pants, a breathable rain jacket, wool socks and waterproof boots. I carried my scope and tripod on a backpack carrier and took a couple of dry handkerchiefs to dry my lenses.

I checked all the local spots that were good for wintering birds, but had nothing of note. I couldn't even find a Eurasian Wigeon or any unusual shorebird or waterfowl. After a while, things got very wet and my handkerchiefs were no longer dry! (I should have brought a bath towel!) Wet eyeglasses, binoculars and scope do not make birding any easier. There could have been rare birds on the bay at that point and I wouldn't have even seen them. "Time to go home!" I again announced to no one in particular (I probably should be more careful about walking around in the rain, talking to myself!) Not only did I not see any other counters out birding, but I saw very few people out of their homes at all on such a blowing wet day.
When I got home, the rain water had soaked into my clothing, from around my collar, and my feet were cold. (Christmas bird counts should have an alternate day when the usual day is rained out.)

I ended up with barely 60 species, when the same walk on a dry day would have yielded closer to 100 species! The entire Morro Bay Christmas Bird Count was only about 175 species - the lowest total for our count in over 25 years! It wasn't disappointed because I found no new green year birds, but because I knew that there were birds around that would have been unique for the count. I missed them on count day due to the "fowl" weather. Really crappy days like this one made me appreciate the usual nice weather in this area (that I often take for granted). (How's that for a great rationalization for having spent several miserable hours outside, vainly looking for birds in the driving cold rain?!)

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