Welcome! This blog is inspired by the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve in Gardena, California.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Christmas Bird Count

On a rainy morning just before Christmas three women entered the Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve, their binoculars, clipboards and cameras ready for action.  Tracy Drake, Heather Williamson and Connie Vadheim were participating in a December tradition that dates back over one hundred years: the Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count.
 Each year since 1900,  tens of thousands  of volunteers from the Northern arctic to South America brave the cold, rain and snow to census local birds.   Working with local scientists and naturalists like Ms. Drake (Manager/Naturalist at the Madrona Marsh Preserve and Nature Center), local birders and citizen scientists canvas the number of species and individual birds in over 2000 count areas .    The counts are done each year between December 14th and January 5th. 
The date for our local Palos Verdes/South Bay Circle was December 23rd this year.  Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. More than 60 volunteers visited over 50 sites all over the South Bay this year. The count is not just a species tally—all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day.  The results are tallied at the end of the day and submitted to the national bird count database.

Good ears, sharp eyes and excellent observation skills are required for the Christmas Bird Count.  That’s why volunteers are trained before they get to participate.  The count team records all the birds it sees, as well as those it hears.  If possible, the team also photographs unusual or rare birds that it encounters.  The Gardena team did all three; it quickly became obvious why a team approach is required.
American Crows and Mourning Doves flew over as the team entered the Gardena Willows Preserve.   A large flock of tiny birds (Bushtits) flitted through the trees, foraging for insects.  The team recorded a total of 64 Bushtits during their hour and a half survey, the most common species seen that morning.   Other insect-eating birds, including five species of Warblers, were busy feeding in the Willow and Cottonwood trees.   These large trees provide an important food source for insects and for the birds that feed on them.  

 A White-tailed Kite – a new raptor for the Preserve – circled above and landed on a nearby Willow branch.  The team paused and photographed this rare treat.  White-tailed Kites were almost hunted to extinction in California in the 1930’s.   They are slowly returning to our area – thanks in part local nature preserves and open areas.
Hummingbirds were busy feeding and gathering nesting materials throughout the Preserve.  A small group of Cedar Waxwings were gobbling down a preferred food – Toyon berries.   On the ground,  several Hermit Thrushes and California Towhees rustled in the leaves, searching for ground-dwelling insects.  The team did not see these elusive birds, but their distinctive call allowed Ms. Drake to identify them.  

In total, the team identified 30 species and over 275 individual birds in the Gardena Willows wetland Preserve and surrounding Johnson Park.    The count from the Gardena Site helped make the Palos Verdes/South Bay Circle one of the top 40 sites in the United States in terms of bird species and individual birds seen. 
According to the CBC Website, ‘the results of Christmas Bird Counts provide a powerful picture of our world over time.   Using data from over 40 years of Christmas Bird Counts, Audubon scientists learned that nearly 60% of birds that winter in North America have shifted their winter ranges northward over the past 40 years.  This is important evidence that our winters are getting warmer.’ 
The Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve continues to play a role in providing key data about our changing planet.  You can see results of previous bird and butterfly counts at  http://www.gardenawillows.org/ and learn more about the Christmas Bird Count at: http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count .

--posted by Constance M. Vadheim, Board Member, Friends of Gardena Willows Wetland Preserve