The Audubon Society sponsored a Christmas Bird Count in Oroville Jan. 3, l999, and I decided to check it out, even though the start was seven AM and a fog was fooling around the river.
At least, it wasn't pouring down rain, although I understand die-hard birders do it in the rain too. "CBC rain or shine!" Perhaps, after all, I am a fair weather birder without the drive that prompted ancient naturalist Donald Culross Peattie to say, "The time to hear bird music is between four and six in the morning."
Hunters, fishermen, photographers, and travelers in addition to bird watchers know the virtues of an early start. "The early bird gets the worm." (We won't talk about getting warm!) "Early to bed, early to rise." ... etc. You have to be hungry for something to be out there at six in the cold fog.
"Well, I'll just go for a while in the morning," I thought. I picked up Feather River Nature Center president Peter Maki who was interested in the project even though he was not acquainted with all the species. I had said he would be a good tally man. When we arrived to greet 20 birders anxiously waiting to be off and running at 7 AM, I opened my mouth to say Peter and I wanted to help with the riverside count since that was where the nature center was, but I was unprepared when they handed me the leader-board and one novice who could do it only until noon.
The fog didn't seem so bad at the agri-building gathering place, but when we got to the river, you could barely see the water! We could make out some white blotches on the river bar that we presumed were gulls, and then we began to notice the cold. "Should have worn my thermals," Peter said.
We hung in there and walked the river parkway to the lagoon where we could plainly see 16 bufflehead ducks ... I think. They were feeding and bobbing up and down. "Six! No, 10. Where? There. l5. Now six again." Funny how binoculars start bobbing up and down after five minutes.
Our list did start to grow in spite of the dimness. The towhees, the sparrows, the woodpeckers. I wanted to especially see the Barrow's goldeneye that I knew was out in the fog. I had been watching them for two weeks. Once there was a lifting and I could see one in my Leitz. "There!" But try as I might, Peter and Lisa could not see it. That Barrow's belongs on the special sheet, and verification is needed. But no, they couldn't see it.
By then we were ready to proceed to the second sector on our list - the Oroville Wildlife Area. We got in my car and turned that heater on full blast and headed merrily over the gravel road along the dikes and ponds. We became car-birders! Jump out for a quick look, then jump back into the warm car.
The river bottoms were cloaked with an absorbing grayness that created a ghosty atmosphere where birds would appear like magic and then fade away. Once a cormorant zoomed into view and then was gone. A pair of white-tailed kites sat on a snag, and then an osprey. We added California quail to our list.
I discovered that by pulling alongside thickets and squeaking on my hand, small woodland hawks would land practically on the car! A Cooper's hawk. A sharp-shinned hawk. "See it??" "Where?" "There!" "It's gone!"
Looking down on the egret rookery from the levee we could see the misty cottonwoods containing last year's nests. It looked rather eerie in the swampland and we heard the hoots of the great horned owl, and dimly saw one sliding silently off into the willow thickets. The road was alive with juncos and finches, and Peter went back for his sheet. Returning, he rather seriously said, "I heard a major splash out in the swamp. I've heard moose splashing and it was almost that loud, certainly not a deer." Someone suggested Bigfoot, and Peter replied that he had thought of that too! The wonderful side attractions of an outing!
When we returned to the river at noon, there was a break in the fog, and we could see the water! Then we could plainly see the six Barrow's Goldeneye in all their bright-plumaged glory! Oh happy day! "I can see clearly now, the fog is gone, I can see all obstacles in my way..." (Song)
We three were on our own, and we adjourned for lunch, although I imagine those expert, dedicated birders would be wolfing down a sandwich and birding all the while. There is an obsession to see as many as you can - and always watch for the rare and unexpected! It is what keeps birders, and rock hounds, and photographers reaching forth for the perfect one and something never seen before.
Peter and I went out along Table Mountain after lunch, partly to watch for birds; it gets to be a habit to see a movement in the meadow and then check it out. As a side trip, we went to see an Indian Petroglypt rock, and tuned as we were to birds, imagine our amazement to see one flock of 200 meadow larks flying in the meadow!! There were hundreds of redwing blackbirds in winter plumage too! What makes bird counting so challenging is the winter plumage, different than the spring attire.
The birder captains met in the evening to mull over the day's count, and amid hot tea and casserole at the good Noel Graves' home, the roll call accounted for 117 species of birds, down but acceptable for a adverse viewing day.
Why do people count birds? There are certain people in the community who look upon those bird viewers in a different way. Odd. But some never know the extra delight in beholding a flying wonder feathered with colors loaned from the rainbow, or maybe they haven't heard a great horned owl calling in a foggy swamp where spooky trees rise to the clouded sky. Those who have witnessed a string of Canada geese drifting in the evening sky and hear their call of the wild, know a different dimension than many in our society. Watch.
If the bird has not preached to me, it has added to the
resources of my life, it has widened the field of my
interests, it has afforded me another beautiful object
to love, and has helped me feel more at home in the world.
© 1999 Rex Burress
January 7, 1999