Counting Birds in the Rain

The Fort Bragg Christmas Bird Count was held on the 20th of December. I believe this is the fifth year for the count although it is only the fourth “official” count because the first one was a trial run. Section 8 is my territory. My birding partner, Sara Grimes and I normally bike the Big River Haul Road in the morning and hike out to the mouth of Big River after that and then do known bird feeders in the afternoon until reporting to the tally dinner in the evening. This year was a little different.

We start looking at the weather report a week out. We have never had significant rain during our count. This year has been a wet one so far and it looked like count day would be rainy. I have never biked much in the rain and I started to worry. For much of the week it looked like the morning of the count would have been OK but that changed as the day got closer. It looked like a “first” was about to happen. Optics are a concern when birding and I wear glasses. I stocked up on lens cleaning cloths, dry clothing and shoes. I received word that my bird counter that does the Mendocino Headlands was calling in sick. That meant that my plans had to change. I would have to take some time to cover that area as best I could. So on the morning of the 20th I headed out with two sweatshirts on and full rain gear to cover my area.

The conditions for our count also included a very high tide and a storm surge that would raise that tide another two feet. The next few days would bring “King” tides to the coast The ocean conditions were rough. On the way to my area I noticed a huge motor home in the Van Damme State Park Beach parking lot. The water was up to the cement wall around the parking lot. There were Black Oystercatchers roosting under the motor home. I'm sure the people sleeping in the motor home went to bed thinking they had a nice little beach parking place to stay the night. Later that evening on the way home the parking lot was closed off. This will be a future problem for the Mendocino Coast with a rising sea level due to climate change.

Big River conditions were bad. The high tide and storm surge left little beach for gulls and shorebirds to roost on. I had never seen so much water in the river. While we were there the first parking lot became flooded and was later closed off by state park employees. Since I didn't want to take my camera because of the weather and because the camera on my Apple Itouch was covered with a baggy to keep it dry this is the best picture I could come up with. I will title it, Big River Though a Baggy.

As normally happens, the anticipation was worse then the actual experience. Our bike ride only had at most a light mist during the ride. It was actually a beautiful ride with the river being so wide. Birds were actually singing which they are not supposed to do at this time of the year. Saw a Western Grebe do it's walking on water dance. Heard them calling. Heard two Pacific Loons communicating with each other. Had high counts of Virginia Rails and Wood Ducks. We cut short our usual ride to save time for us to get out to the Headlands. The wet of my inner clothes was from sweating.

It was out on the Mendocino Headlands that it got bad. Wind, rain and rough surf. The surf was breaking up over some of the tall islands off the headlands. It was impressive. I was kept busy trying to keep my optics dry and mostly failing. Our best birds were two Wandering Tattlers. The first one was seen by Sarah (Grimes) and according to her, the second one nearly hit me in the head. I think that they are a first for our count. After the Headlands we did bird feeders.

Over the years we have always gone to the feeders at the Brewery Gulch Inn and the Mendocino Cafe. The receptionist at the Inn offered us coffee, tea, and a muffin this year. The coffee was appreciated. The Cafe's feeder was busy with finches and a display of flying ability from a Cooper's Hawk that came in from the back and out a little arched gateway.

After a day of birding it was on to the tally dinner at the Caspar Community Center for a delicious lasagna dinner and some home brew from Tim Bray our compiler. Even with the rainy conditions we had 50+ birders at the dinner.

Missed a few birds this year. Last year we had 152 bird species during the count. This year we had 137 (note: this is without the bird feeder counts). We added another 7 during the count week. Because of the high surf we missed many seabirds that we usually see. The following pictures are on the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society's Facebook page. I believe they are all taken by Tim Bray's wife, Catherine Keegan.

That's it for this year's Fort Bragg Christmas Bird Count. Let's hope for better weather next year.




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