Did you know in the late 1800s there was a Christmas tradition of the Christmas side hunt? Parties would divide up and head into the wood in a competition to see who could kill more things, feathered or furred. Charming. If you think we’ve evolved since then remember we still do this with coyotes and rattlesnakes and other ‘vermin’, just not as a Christmas tradition. In 1900 ornithologist Frank M. Chapman came up with a new idea. Frank said, “Hey, it’s getting kind hard to find all those animals. Maybe we should count them and see how many are left.” No, not really. What is true is that Chapman was justifiably concerned about the birds and he proposed the switch from killing to counting. That first count had 27 counters in 25 locations. They found 89 species. You can see the results HERE. I’ll bet a librarian deserves credit for us knowing those very first results. Conservation was a new idea and what is now known as the CBC or Christmas Bird Count is still going strong. Here’s a link to what the North American coverage looked like in 2014.
The CBC has grown and overtime developed standard protocols. The result is a powerful data set fueled by citizen scientists over the course of more than a century. The cumulative years of methodically counting have netted priceless scientific insight. Many conservation advances of teh past can be credited to the sound scientific conclusions from this long view of nature. Sadly, there’s a lot more work to be done. The rapid pace of climate change is outpacing nature’s ability to adapt. Using this data we can see population shifts in real time. Many species will not make it as food and precipitation cycles gyrate wildly. The NY Times just published a story on one special spot on our globe. You can read it HERE. We can relate to this anecdotal story of boobies and penguins and iguanas but the truth is this is a global disaster and it’s happening all around.
Despite the horrifying news we chose to move forward in hope and continue to collect data. It might only be an exercise in respect and acknowledgement as we consciously observe the destruction we have wrought but perhaps it will help provide answers on how to move forward. I don’t know but I’m going to go out and count.
So tomorrow is our big day. Birders from all over the area are coming here to lend a hand. Novices and experts will work together to take stock of our treasured birds. We meet at 7 AM at the Todos Santos Bus Station. I have maps and snacks. Bring your sunscreen, bug spray, binoculars, and hats.
Christmas Bird Count season is upon us. That’s something to celebrate. This is the 119th anniversary of the largest citizen science project in the world. It’s successful because humans all over agree to go out and focus their birding efforts in a tight circle on a scheduled date. The collective CBC circles cover an area and span of time to have produced the most important bird trend data in the world. Burt and I were lucky to have participated in a Portal, AZ count a few years ago. We followed our friend Peg Abbott of Naturalist Journeys as she birded her way up a mountain road over the course of a day. Peg explained the science of the CBC and shared her incredible bird identification skills while we spotted and kept count for her. We are hooked on birding in large part because people like Peg have generously spent time helping us learn the birds.
Yesterday Burt and I went to La Paz to help count in their amazingly diverse circle. They’ve got desert and agriculture and miles of shoreline and the open water of La Paz bay. Daniel Galindo-Espinosa is the compiler for La Paz and he welcomed our participation and has agreed to come to Todos Santos and help me out this week when we do ours. We were assigned to help our buddy Emer Garcia of the UABCS birding program at the city’s wastewater treatment plants. This might seem like a loser spot but it is actually one of the most important habitats in the Baja Sur region. I kind of hoped for a new area and new birds but I was relieved for two reasons. Emer is a pro and Burt and I had birded the area the day before so we knew what to expect. Still it was also kind of overwhelming. The volume of birds on the treatment lagoons can make you crazy when you’re desert rats like us. We are used to spotting birds as individuals. Counting entire flocks and picking out unique individuals inside of heavy flocks is tiring work. It takes practice. Our team of 5 set to it with Emer keeping us under control and we think we did a pretty good job. Our search revealed 59 species and over 1000 individuals. There was nearly 100 white-faced ibis alone. And the ducks. Holy quakery, Bat Man, there were a lot of ducks.
Meanwhile Burt and I have been driving roads to make sure we can get people out to the areas we want birded this Thursday. Today we are taking one last excursion to the border of the Sierra de la Laguna. I saw something I’m hesitant to report just yet so we’re going to try and find it again and also check out some other spots.
Join us Thursday at 7AM (12/20) if you’d like to participate in the Todos Santos Christmas Bird Count.
There’s a very special bird visiting Helena right now. While common in much of the US, Mexico and Central America the green heron is a rare visitor to this part of the country. This is the same species (or not) of bird found in the Galapagos Islands. Out on the remote islands it can be seen in two distinct plumages and is called the lava heron or striated heron or green heron. Depending on your predilection. Burt and I saw many many many green herons on our two trips to the Galapagos. Today we will not discuss if we should lump or split this lovely bird and it’s kith and kin. We shall marvel at the fact that this individual said, “I’m gonna check out a new place.” My ebird research reveals the closest record was from 2016 up in Cascade.
How we found this bird is a testament to doing science every day and the motto of “every bird counts, count every bird.” The book Lab Girl certainly has been on my mind as I consider all the work volunteers around the world are doing to count birds. Almost every list is mundane. Robins, house finches, starlings, Eurasian collared doves…blah bland blah. But the science is found in the mundane. Data is boring but must be collected so we can see the meaning in the big picture. Each individuals list is meaningless but together something is learned. Our lone green heron is a blip. He’s meaningless to science but he’s a juicy reward for us.
Burt and I had both had long busy days. He worked on the remodel job. I walked 4 1/2 miles to town and then spent two more hours cleaning an older friend’s home. At lunchtime Burt and I met for Bridge. The unit game started with a free lunch and a commotion. The director and her minions were out of sorts. There was yelling, a kerfuffle over the wrong movement. Boards were seen by the wrong people. More yelling. I kept my head down and mouth shut but I was rattled. Then I had a long sequence of missed heartbeats or palpatations. I became confused and couldn’t remember what I was doing and ruined a couple of hands from complete brain fog. My mood was dour and my head and chest ached. Burt wanted to leave. I told him I’d rather die playing Bridge than go through another endless round of tests in the ER. He let me stay. It is clear that emotional stress with a mix of physical exhaustion is my main trigger. With my new meds just getting underway I want to just wait a bit before heading to the doctor again. Bridge wrapped up with us not in last place. That is the best we can hope for on a good day. Considering I couldn’t remember if aces were out in any suit of any hand it was a great day.
Afterwards we had an hour and a half to pass before meeting friends for an early birthday celebration. I suggested we take the dogs to the new Ten Mile Creek Park. Elvis and Olive could enjoy the new off-leash area and we could see some birdies. And that’s how we came to spot a rare visitor in the jungles of Helena. Burt said, “I see some kind of heron over there.” I peeked and thought, “It seems very familiar. It reminds me of the striated heron in the Galapagos.” Well, that’s because it was the same species of bird (if you’re a lumper). A quick look in iBirdPro revealed that we had found a green heron in an unusual location. What an improvement over bridge. Calm brain on a gentle walk. I felt like I was firing on all cylinders again.
Here’s a fact about the green heron that I should have known but didn’t: Green herons are tool users. They use bits of leaves or bread or other fishies to lure in fish to eat. They are bait fishermen. No wonder we like them.