Birds and Butterflies

I enjoy writing these birds and butterflies posts. They get me out into the natural world for observation and exercise. They awaken my dead brain cells. They help with my ego in that I can still identify and get a decent photo of a good bird or butterfly and it shows that you don't have pour tons of carbon into the air to observe nature around us.

On March 26th, I was biking south on the Haul Rd just north of Virgin Creek after having an encounter with a Monarch Butterfly (more on that later) when I noticed something sticking out of a water filled pothole. I noticed that the head of this something followed me as I went by. I stopped and got out my camera. It was a Northern Pygmy-Owl taking a bath.

Apparently my being on a bike didn't bother it but me being on foot taking pictures did. It flew to a tree nearby.

The Northern Pygmy-Owl is a really small and cute bird. It's hard to believe it a scourge of small song birds. A week later I was looking for the pothole and discovered that state park's personnel had filled in the hole not realizing it was a birdbath:-)

On April 2nd, I had a close encounter with 15 Short-billed Dowitchers during a SOS Shorebird Survey at Virgin Creek. At least I think They were Short-billed. The more I read about separating dowitchers the more confused I become. Apparently we never see dowitchers in full breeding plumage. That happens on their breeding grounds. Hearing their calls is one way to sort them out but in my situation the surf was drowning out any other sounds. Short-billed Dowitchers like the coast and salt water while Long-billed are more frequently seen inland and like fresh water but that isn't universal. My final determination in identifying these birds is that it seems Short-billed Dowitchers have a bend at the end of their bills.

Joining the dowitchers were 3 fairly early Long-billed Curlews. I don't have any trouble identifying these birds. They tower over the local Whimbrels. They are listed as rare in Mendocino Country.

While I was getting ready to leave Virgin Creek I noticed a huge raptor flying in from the south. It followed the creek and over the Haul Rd. scattering the Mallards and then flew over me again out to the shoreline heading north. It was a third year Bald Eagle, a first for me at Virgin Creek. Bald Eagles are listed as rare in Mendocino County especially on the coast.

The birding at the Little River Airport has been interesting. Birders in Mendocino Country have been finding migratory birds arriving extremely early. Both Wilson Warblers and Pacific-slopes Flycatchers arrived at the airport over a week earlier then any observed time. Purple Martins were heard 17 days earlier than previously records.

Since I've been watching for butterflies earlier this year then last year I found a few new species to add to my Mendocino List. This Margined White found near Lake Cleone is only the second I've found and forces me to check out all of the white butterflies that I thought were Cabbage Whites.

While I have seen Monarch Butterflies in Mendocino County, I have not gotten a picture. I noticed this male Monarch still flapping while caught in a spider web. I tried to release it but I noticed the legs were not working. The spider got to it before I did. If you would like to help protect the Monarch from extinction you can sigh the petition to the EPA here.

A new Mendocino County butterfly for me is this Red Admiral found while on the boardwalk at Lake Cleone. Actually found two of them but this one posed for me.

Another new butterfly that wasn't on my radar is this Echo Azure. At one time the Echo was considered a part of the Spring Azure complex which is still being studied as far as species classification. The Echo seems to have made it as a separate specie. This butterfly was found at the Woods where I live while walking back from the airport. Pretty butterfly!!




Some Birds, Butterflies and Even a Starfish

I like doing these birding posts. They don't require much research. Just get the picture and blog it. This post will have a little tragedy and maybe some hope. I'm going to throw some butterflies and a Starfish in for good measure.

While birding the Little River Airport on January 31st there was the second earliest Allen's Hummingbird recorded in Mendocino County.

Red-naped Sapsuckers are listed as extremely rare in Mendocino County. In the last few years they have been showing up regularly inland. I chased one that was found at Riverside Park in Ukiah in 2013. Failed to find it. One was found in early November, 2014, at the Rose Memorial Cemetery in Fort Bragg. It might be the county's first coastal record. I spent many trips to the cemetery in an attempt to find it and failed each time. I had given up until it was seen again in early February. On February 4th, I finally found it.

That same day after getting back to Mendocino on the bus I decided to see who was right in the reporting of two white geese out on the Mendocino Headlands. They were either Snow Geese or Ross's Geese. There was no obvious “grin patch”, the border at the base of the bill was straight and vertical, bill and head was smallish and petite, and another person's picture show bluish on the bill's base. Decision goes to Ross's Geese, a rare bird for Mendocino County.

February 12th was my 33rd Wedding Anniversary. My wife decided we would make a day of it by going to the Garcia River Casino and then out for dinner. Didn't have much luck at the casino but when we went outside to leave there was a Palm Warbler in the parking lot. Palm Warblers are listed as rare in Mendocino County.

The Long-tailed Duck continues at Virgin Creek Beach giving some up-close viewing opportunities. Several times I observed it flying in.

During my SOS Surveys at Virgin Creek Beach I've been reporting many dead seabirds on the beach. It seems that conditions in the Pacific Ocean are proving bad for much of it's wildlife. Two cases in point are a massive die-off of Cassin's Auklets and Sea Lions. It might be that our Cassin's Auklet here in Mendocino County is the Common Murre. I've been reporting many dead Common Murres on the beach. Some of them are fresh and still in the surf line.

On the 11th of February I witnessed one die right before my eyes.


But on the same day I saw something I hadn't seen in a long time. It was a Starfish.

If you have been following this blog for sometime you would have read a post called, What is Turning Starfish Into Goo?, back in December 2013. Is this a sign of hope? Will have to wait and see.

On the 26th of February I was going pass Lake Cleone on my way to have lunch at the Laguna Point parking lot (MacKerricher State Park) when I notice some fluttering in a little marshy area between Mill Creek Dr. and the Haul Road. It was a little grayish bird in the water. I was confused at first but realized it was a bird not normally seen while on land. It was a distressed(?) Fork-tailed Storm Petrel. They are listed as rare during spring and fall. It might be the first sighting for winter.

On the same day we had a massive flight of Aleutian Cackling Geese flying north. I estimated 930 plus geese with one flock having 450 plus birds in it. They were flying into a 20mph headwind.

The Violet-green Swallows have returned to the Little River Airport. I spotted two of them on the 1st of March, beating the last early date by two days.

Butterflies are also returning to the airport. I found the strikingly pretty Western Pine Elfin and the rather plain Brown Elfin on March1st.


Kaufman's Field Guide to Butterflies of North America said that the Western Pine Elfin flies late spring or early summer. I guess the butterflies are confused with our strange weather.



Birding and Butterfly News

I guess the title for this post should be something like, How to Get Yourself Shot by a Duck Hunter. The first couple of weeks in January were interesting for me as far as the birding went. I also found my first butterfly of the year.

On the 9th, I went to one of my favorite places to bird, Navarro Beach Road. It has many different habitats and you can expect to see lot's of birds.

When I got to the beginning of Navarro Beach Road I went out on the bridge over Navarro River to look for ducks. While out on the bridge a loud explosion occurred. The area is down in a valley with high cliffs around it. The explosion was startling and seem to echo from under the bridge. A short time later there was a guy rowing towards me from the west in a camouflaged kayak, in camouflage gear, and a camouflaged shotgun.

The section of the river west of the bridge is Navarro River Estuary State Marine Conservation Area.

  • In a state marine conservation area, it is unlawful to injure, damage, take, or possess any living, geological, or cultural marine resource for commercial or recreational purposes, or a combination of commercial and recreational purposes, that the designating entity or managing agency determines would compromise protection of the species of interest, natural community, habitat, or geological features. The designating entity or managing agency may permit research, education, and recreational activities, and certain commercial and recreational harvest of marine resources. (PRC Section 36710(c))

As you can see, if you go to the link, duck hunting is allowed. I don't see how a duck hunter can safely hunt there. There's a state highway(128) to the north of the river, a state park to the south, and the bridge I was standing on to the east. In which direction can you shoot? After talking to various agencies (and getting some bad information) it would appear that as long as the hunter is shooting safety, it's allowed. In all the years I've been birding there, it has never happened. It certainly changed my mood for the day.

At least he wasn't butterfly hunting! While walking next to the river I noticed a very colorful butterfly flying near me. I was able to get two poor picture of it before it went on it's way.

My first thought was, what was a butterfly doing out in the middle of winter? Since flowering plants and trees have been blooming I thought that butterflies were being confused. When I got home I got out my butterfly book to identify it. I'm reasonably sure it's a Green Comma. A new species for me. Commas used to be called anglewings, a name I prefer. Kaufman's Field Guide to Butterflies of North America' states,

Most are woodland butterflies, preferring to feed at tree sap, rotting fruit, mud, dung, or carrion instead of flowers. Commas hibernate as adults, usually in tree crevices, logs, or cracks in buildings. Hibernating adults occasionally fly on warm winter days.

So much for my climate change theory!

Birding at the Little River Airport has been slow lately. I failed to reach my goal of 30 bird species two times this month. On the 14th during a slow day I heard what sounded like an Osprey calling. I was so sure that I ticked it on my list. Then I heard some strange calls associated with the Osprey call. When I investigated I found a single Gray Jay. This was only the second time I've found them at the airport. The jay did not cooperate in getting it's picture taken. Gray Jays can be hard to find in Mendocino County especially If you're trying to find one.

The next day was a SOS Shorebird Survey at Virgin Creek Beach. In the gull flock was a first year Glaucous Gull. These are the best pictures of a Glaucous Gull that I've ever taken and no it didn't fly because of me.

We only get one or two Glaucous Gulls every winter. Most are first year birds. They are rare here but are an easy gull to identify because it's one of our largest gulls and are very pale with a sharply bicolored bill.
Further up the beach I was looking for Harlequin Ducks in the water or on the rocks. I found five of them which I think is a new record for me at Virgin Creek. While watching them a female Long-tailed Duck popped up.
It was the closest I've been to one. Most of the time they are further off shore. Long-tailed Ducks are rare in Mendocino County with generally only one per winter if they show up at all. It has been refound several times.
The most exciting event of the day was the Battle of the Phoebes. After the Long-tailed Duck sighting I heard a commotion just below the bluffs. Two phoebes were having a territorial fight. I realized one was a Black Phoebe.


The other was a Say's Phoebe that appears to be overwintering on the Mendocino Coast.

I have always admired the pugnacious nature of the Black Phoebe. I've seen them go after American Pipits and Yellow-rumped Warblers when they get in the way. I've also seen one nonchalantly ignore a Sharp-shinned Hawk at the Little River Airport. But the Black Phoebe was no match for the Say's. The Say's Phoebe chased the Black for a few minutes, caught it and took it to the ground and beat the crap out of it. The Black Phoebe left the area and appeared unharmed the next bluff over. Lesson learned- don't mess with a Say's Phoebe.


Wrap Up 2014

At the end of 2013 I did several posts that were titled, Wrap Up 1,2,3, and 4–The Birds, The Logistics, The Blog, and What's Next? Since 2013 was a “green” year, wrapping it up was a little more significant than 2014. I did not do as much birding in 2014 with most of my time spent doing bird survey work for Save Our Shorebirds(SOS) at Virgin Creek Beach and The Mendocino Land Trust on Big River. I did continue to do my weekly Little River Airport outings but didn't travel to inland Mendocino to bird. I also didn't blog as much in 2014 and I'm a little surprised that I've even kept this blog going. But I sort of enjoy blogging and it allows me to vent about the current state of birding like the last post (as of this writing, 1/13/15, the ABA still has not recognized Dorian Anderson on their blog), the sad state of the planet because of climate change, and news about biking and alternate means of travel.

So this will be a mini version of the 2013 Wrap Up posts and I'll try to get it done in one post.

Wrap Up–The Birds. Although I didn't spend as much time birding I did manage to see 220 bird species. 221 if you want to count the Mute Swan. I didn't spend anytime inland but did do two pelagic trips. I had 5 new county birds with 2 being lifers. I guess the best bird was the Cory's Shearwater. It's only the third record for California. I got a picture but it's not pretty and the California Bird Records Committee, our birding gods, haven't approved it yet.

The second lifer was a Murphy's Petrol which was too far off for a picture. Note that the two lifers were on pelagic trips. The biggest excitement for land birders was the Black Skimmer found on Virgin Creek Beach. It was a first record for Mendocino County with two more to follow in a short period of time.

I found a female Mountain Bluebird at the Little River Airport. The behavior of other birders trying to relocate the bird made me swear off reporting birds of high value found at the airport.

My fifth county bird is a secret. It has not been reported on any birding website and has not been Ebirded. This is because of it's threatened status in California. A colony of these birds was found in Mendocino County in 2013. Only a select few birders know of the existence of this colony and you will not get the location from me. The birds are Bank Swallows.

Some other notable birds that I got pictures of–a Lawrence Goldfinch at the Little River Airport.

My best picture of a South Polar Skua.

One of my favorite birds to get a picture of is the American Avocet. This one was on Virgin Creek Beach.

2014 was the year of the Elegant Tern in Mendocino County with hundreds being seen.

And finally a Pectoral Sandpaper which is not rare but I really like this picture of one dwarfed by the giant kelp.

The link to Wrap Up 1–The Birds for 2013 can be found here.

Wrap Up 2–the Logistics for 2013 can be found here. I'm a failure on the logistics for 2014. Didn't keep track of anything. Don't have any idea as to how many vehicle miles I saved. I have continued to use the bike and bus to do most of my birding. I fill-up my truck about every two months. The price of a bus pass has increased but it's still cheaper to ride the bus. I believe a round trip from Mendocino and Fort Bragg is now $1.06 instead of $.96. Due to a tire change by Catch a Canoe and Bicycles Too I had no broken spokes or flat tires. The bus was generally on time. So much for logistics.

Wrap Up 3–The Blog get a little more interesting. 2013 is here. At the end of 2013 I had 651 views of my blog. At the end of 2014 I had 2,584. A great increase in views. While in the big picture of blogs that might not be a high number, I'm happy with it. Comments were up to 92. That's 37 comments for 2014, down from 55 in 2013. Maybe people weren't as chatty this last year. I wrote 191 posts in 2013 (hard to believe) and only 82 in 2014.

In 2013 people in 25 countries had viewed my blog. At the end of 2014 that was up to 60. I need to fill in the map of Africa a little more. Just added Finland today. Who knew how popular I was in Moldova:>)


WordPress tells me that some of my most popular posts were written in 2013. One of those was the Psychology of Bus Riding Part Four–How Not to Sit Next to the Weirdo. I'm actually proud of this series of posts. It was picked-up by the Mendocino Transit Authority and linked to. This year it strangely took off again due to some financial company in England. The mysteries of blogging! Another 2013 post was the Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future. It has continued to be a popular post for the last two years. My most viewed 2014 post was Haboobs–Is Phoenix Doomed. I think it is but I will let you decide.

My followers with blog sites remained the same in 2014. Check the link above for a listing. Many thanks for following my blog if you are still out there. I added two email followers for a total of four. One is a friend back in Pennsylvania. Kathryn, sorry for the PTSD problems that my post called Blues on Wheels caused. All of us former postal employees have the same memories. There is a local birder following me. Henri I recognized your email address. Thank you for checking out my blog. Alison, you are still my number one commentator, Le fael!

Wrap Up 4–What's Next. The link to 2013 is here. What's Next was sort of a projection of what I would accomplish in 2014. Some of my projections actually happened. This blog was continued. Many of the projects around the house got done with some of them being a work in progress. Rat, squirrel, and mouse proofing under the house got done. It wasn't a pleasant project. An old rotten fence got taken down and is part of a landscaping project still ongoing. Renewed an old interest in butterflies. My efforts to make California State Parks here in Mendocino County more friendly to bike riders will get done, hopefully soon. Hooded Merganser/Wood Duck nest boxes didn't get done but are still planned. I did get one bird house for swallows done. Of course it was made out of recycled material. Working on my photography was started but was limited. Getting caught up with my reading material didn't happen. Keeping most of my birding within a local count circle around my home is still being contemplated. Taking pictures of Happy birds is an ongoing project. This is the most elevated Fox Sparrow I have ever seen. Happy New Year!




















Dorian Anderson Does It!

If this post looks familiar to you it's because I wrote it just seven days ago. Why would I repost this article? It's because I want to show you the different reactions to Dorian Anderson's tremendous achievement and Neil Heyward's conventional if record breaking Big Year in 2013. There has been NO reaction at the American Birding Association(ABA) to Dorian's efforts nine days after his year ended. Bear in mind that he was out there raising money for them. I am going to re-tag this post to include the ABA. In 2013 I was able to connect my blog to their's using this method. Don't know if it still works but I will find out. More on this below my post congratulating Dorian Anderson.

Congratulations go out to Dorian Anderson for successfully and safely completing his Biking for Birds Big Year. This was Dorian's pledge when he started his birding adventure.

I, Dorian Anderson, will travel only by bike, foot, and kayak as I move about the continent in search of birds. My movements will be unaided by petroleum, natural gas, and electricity. I will not have a support vehicle; everything I need will be carried on my person and my bicycle. This Big Year permutation will certainly add an unprecedented level of adventure to the endeavor, and it should set a new standard for environmentally sustainable travel.

His early estimate of bird species he expected to find was between 550 and 600. His final total is 617 with the possibility of an additional Red-legged Honeycreeper if the Texas Rare Bird Committee approves it.

He visited 28 states, biked 17,830 miles, walked 493 miles and kayaked 8 miles. He had 34 flat tires, 1 broken spoke, and 1 broken dérailleur cable. He raised over $45,000 for bird conservation and birding programs.

He has set a record for the most birds seen without using a carbon producing vehicle. We will see if anyone in the birding community will attempt to break it. Most birders like to bird using the comforts of their cars. Maybe the next attempt at a birding big year should be using public transportation.

You can see Dorian's final 2014 post at his Biking For Birds Blog. You can still hit the donation button.


Here is an email that I sent to Nate Swick, ABA's blog manager on January 3rd.

Nate–Dorian Anderson has completed his Biking for Birds big year. In fact it's been 3 days now going on 4. He was actually out there raising money for the ABA. Why the silence on his efforts? You should be featuring him prominently on your blog just because of his efforts. I would bet that by this time last year Neil Hayward received more blog time and as far as I know he wasn't raising any money for ABA. Maybe Neil can get on a bike and challenge Dorian's record.

Richard Hubacek

Little River, CA

OK it was a little snarky! Here is Nate's reply on the fourth.

I haven't silenced his efforts. I just have a ton of other stuff backed up that I need to get published. We'll have something on Dorian very soon.


Of course I hadn't claimed that he had “intentionally” silenced Dorian's efforts, it's just that no one at the ABA seems to be excited about them. Nate was excited with Neil Heyward's efforts. He was on the boat when Neil Heyward's broke Sandy Komito's record on December 28, 2013. You can read about Nate's excitement on the ABA's blog. Note the title, Neil Hayward Does It! Sort of like my title for this post. Other members of the ABA staff were out with Neil during his year especially in Alaska. To be fair I read where some members of ABA's staff met up with Dorian early in his year and one, Diana Doyle, a green birder and writer for Birding, actually rode with him. There may have been others. Nate also wrote a blog titled, Gunning For ABA Big Year on the 6th of December, 2013. There was the Hayward vs Komito: A Look at the Playing Field by Greg Neise on December 27th. There was the Congratulations Neil! by Lynn Barber on December 31st. The ABA let Neil Hayward announce the ABA's Bird of the Year during an interview. I think I'm safe when I say that there was lot's of excitement at the end of 2013 because of Neil Hayward. None so far for Dorian Anderson. Maybe it's because Dorian was setting a record and not breaking one (although I think he broke a few) but I'm afraid that it's the culture of birding in general and at the ABA specifically. I hope they make a big deal when he hands them a big fat check.

Update: Before someone makes a big deal out of it, there was one “biking” Big Year featured on January 2, 2014. It was titled, An Interview with Ron Beck: Big Green Year Record-breaker.

As for the culture of birding and the ABA mentioned above, I wrote in 2013, a post called, Is the ABA Schizophrenic? It wasn't one of my best written posts but I sure liked the title.


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.



Carbon Intensive Bird Event Sponsored by Audubon

UPDATED ON 12/01/16. This update reflects the individual impacts on melting Arctic sea ice based on a new recent report.

I have changed the name of this blog to represent the true nature of Christmas Bird Counts. I can't think of any other birding event that comes close to matching the carbon used to complete this yearly bird survey.

This post was written last year(2013) and a few things, but not many, have changed during that time. As many of you know, the National Audubon Society released it's big Audubon Climate Report this year. It's a very good report. I wrote about it in a post called, Dear Brigid. Brigid McCormack did not respond (she did respond eventually). The mad CBC counter, which you will read about below, is still featured on the Audubon Christmas Bird Count website (this may no longer be the case but you can find it here as a PDF download). More and more CBC's are added each year which adds more climate changing carbon to the air. Audubon still makes no effort to reduce their carbon footprint for their citizen science projects. I have added some new and controversial comments at the end. I have not checked that all the links still work.


I've been participating in Audubon's Christmas Bird Counts (CBC) for many years. I've done the Palos Verdes Peninsula CBC in Southern California, the Oroville CBC and the Chico CBC in inland Northern California, and I've done the Ukiah CBC, Manchester CBC and the Fort Bragg CBC in Mendocino County. What are CBC's? I will let Audubon explain.

History of the Christmas Bird Count

Prior to the turn of the century, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt”: They would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.

Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a “Christmas Bird Census”-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them.

So began the Christmas Bird Count. Thanks to the inspiration of Frank M. Chapman and the enthusiasm of twenty-seven dedicated birders, twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held that day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied around 90 species on all the counts combined.

Count volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. It's 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. If observers live within a CBC circle, they may arrange in advance to count the birds at their feeders and submit those data to their compiler. All individual CBC's are conducted in the period from December 14 to January 5 (inclusive dates) each season, and each count is conducted in one calendar day.

Audubon has an excellent 23 minute Vimeo video on their website that explains the history of the counts and how the data is used to provide a detailed status of our winter bird populations.


As the video explains:

The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years…More recently, in 2009, the data were instrumental in Audubon's Birds & Climate Change analysis, which documented range shifts of bird species over time.

Besides the birding there is a tabulation dinner after the count where the volunteers tally up the birds seen in their individual areas and a total species count is announced. These dinners are a fun social meeting of most of the birders in the local area.

I am the leader of section 8 of the Fort Bragg CBC. As I wrote in the last post it includes the community of Mendocino with it's Mendocino Headland's State Park, Big River (I've written about Big River before), and the Woodlands State Park. It's a great and diverse area and I have a good team in each of these areas with a total of ten people in the field. As the team leader I feel that it's my job to get a sample of the bird life in all the various habitats in my area as best I can. Since the beginning of the Fort Bragg CBC (it's a relatively new count with only four actual counts with the first being a trial run) I have been biking the Big River Haul Road in the morning with my birding partner, Sarah Grimes. This year(2013) we had Penny, visiting her relatives for the holidays, join us. After the bike ride we walk out to the mouth of the river to bird and then carpool to the several known local bird feeders in the area. We don't have a large carbon footprint counting birds in the Big River area. We then head to the Caspar Community Center for the dinner tally. This year people seemed a little more jovial then usual. That may have been because Tim Bray our compiler supplied us with some of his home brew (Note:He plans to do it again). The compiler makes sure the areas are covered and puts all the data together for Audubon. Tim told me that he and his wife had followed my lead and had done some of his area on bike. So a good time was had by everyone and our count will now become part of the 114th Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

In the last post I said that I would address the “pros” and “cons” of Christmas Bird Counts. How could there be any “cons” in this endeavor you ask? The “pros” are numerous. 113 years of bird data showing the ups and downs of winter bird populations with all kinds of reports used by various organizations showing all sorts of things. Christmas Bird counts are a great social event that brings seasoned birders together with new and most important, younger birders. The CBC's are great for Audubon because of the possibities of bringing new people into the organization.

The main basis for this blog has been birds and climate change. Audubon has used Christmas Bird Count data to document the impacts of climate change on birds in their 2009 report called, “Birds and Climate Change–Ecological Disruption in Motion”. Check out the report. It's very convincing.

The problem is that the data gathering method used in the CBC's is very carbon intensive. Audubon makes no effort that I can find to reduce it's CBC's carbon footprint. Audubon is in conflict with it's own climate change policy which states in part:

All of us have a role to play in reducing the worst impacts of global warming. As individuals and engaged citizens, we can all take steps to reduce our energy use, switch to cleaner sources of power, conserve habitat and encourage our leaders to take immediate action….Use public transportation, ride your bicycle, walk, carpool, and drive a more energy-efficient vehicle. Keep tires properly inflated to increase fuel efficiency – it will lower your fuel costs…(Note: This paragraph was removed from their website when they published their new Audubon Climate Report.

Back in January of this year(2013) I became curious and asked the question, “How many car miles were used in the 112th Christmas Bird Count?” I got this reply from Kathy Dale, Director of Citizen Science, National Audubon Society:

I looked up the values for miles by car for the 112thCBC (including converting those recorded in kilometers) and I come up with 583,164 miles by car in circles in North America-that means from Panama through to Canada.

583,164 miles by car will get you to the moon and back and almost half way back to the moon. As a veteran of CBC's I know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. It is only car miles used while counting birds in the circle. Let me give you an example. Car miles for my section of the Fort Bragg CBC for that year was 14.5 miles. Most of that was birding the Woodlands State Park. All of the Mendocino Headlands was zero miles because he walked the whole area. I had a small amount of car miles checking bird feeders. The “actual” car miles used to get the area counted was over 114 miles because the person counting the Mendocino Headlands came over from Ukiah, a more than 100 mile round trip. I believe the total car miles for the whole count was in the neighborhood of 195 miles. We had at least 7 people (5 cars) that I know of that came from out of the area to count. That would more than triple the car miles reported. There are three counts in Mendocino County. The Manchester Count because of it's isolated location would probably have more “actual” car miles then the Fort Bragg Count. The Ukiah Count less.

UPDATE 12/01/16--A recent report quantified an individual's impacts on melting Arctic sea ice.

Using both observations and computer models, Notz and colleague Julienne Stroeve, of the U.S. National Snow & Ice Data Center and University College, London, found that when looking at averages over 30 years, every metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted results in the loss of 30 square feet of sea ice. That amount of CO2 is what is emitted per person on a round-trip flight from New York to London, or by a car driving 2,500 miles.

Using just the Christmas Bird Count's 583,164 car miles mentioned, the 112th CBC melted almost 7000 square feet of Arctic sea ice. People don't realize their impacts on climate change.

And how about the Christmas Bird Count groupies? People who do as many counts as they can during the count period. Here in California they travel up and down the state to do this. On Audubon's CBC Website there is this article called, “Return of the Mad Counter”. This individual bird counter did 23 counts during the 104th CBC, the maximum you can do during a count period. To quote him:

During the course of completing this full CBC marathon, my field parties identified a total of 132 species (115 last year) and recorded 241,223 individual birds (101,066). I traveled 7100.25 miles (6322) over 360 hours (322), this included travel time, as well as daily compilation time. Consequently, my total effort per count averaged 309 miles and 15.7 hours. By comparison, I spent 92.75 hours traveling to and from counts (85.5), 267.25 hours actually counting birds (236.5), and only 32 hours sleeping.

Note that I put the mileage in bold letters and also note the 32 hours of sleep in 23 days. A hazard to himself and anyone else on the road.

Based on the above I think that I can safely make the claim that Christmas Bird Counts have a very large carbon footprint and since count circles continue to be added each year it will continue to get worse. It's ironic to note that because carbon stays in the atmosphere for long periods of time there is still some climate warming carbon from Christmas Bird Counts since the first car mile. I'm sure that a graph of car miles over time would be similar to the Keeling Curve.

When I asked about the car miles for the 112th CBC I indicated that I had plans to write an article about car miles used in CBC's. Kathy Dale asked me to allow some input from Audubon in the article. While I don't know if the article will ever get written I guess this post may count as one so I will use this quote:

Audubon appreciates the hard work of all our volunteers and the bird trend data collected are more important than ever to document shifts in birds ranges across the Western Hemisphere, says Geoff LeBaron, Christmas Bird Count Director for National Audubon. At the same time we also recognize the need to reduce our carbon footprint in all aspects of our lives, including the CBC. We applaud the efforts to conduct green CBCs and encourage others to do so where possible. Ride a bike, walk, carpool or otherwise find ways to reduce your footprint.

While I feel this is a great quote I can't find any efforts on the part of Audubon to promote these sentiments over the whole of the count area. Perhaps it's time for Audubon to make an effort to at least adhere to their own climate change policies.

Audubon should at least make birders aware of the hidden carbon costs of the CBC's. Compilers should be asked to record the full actual car miles needed to get their CBC counted. CBC's that use less “actual” miles need to be recognized as an incentive for others to reduce their miles. Responsible birders who care about birds will find ways to reduce their carbon footprint.

Frank M. Chapman decided over one hundred years ago that it was time to start protecting birds instead of shooting them. It's time for Audubon to make some changes.


Here are some further comments.

Audubon's efforts to reduce their climate footprint for their citizen science projects are nonexistent. That's probably because it would be a painful experience for them and the people doing the research. The Audubon Climate Report should have been a starting point for this discussion but so far that hasn't happened. The report explains the climate change impacts to birds in great detail but birders, in general, are not willing to reduce their carbon output when birding and many are not willing to admit they are a carbon polluter.

What would it take to “green” Christmas Bird Counts. First Audubon would have to start making it a goal of the counts. Incentives would have to be offered for counts that reduce their car mileage. When birders are offered a challenge they will respond. The goal is to reduce not eliminate carbon. In urban and other appropriate areas the public transportation system should be encouraged. Think of the news reports and publicity for Audubon because of counters using local public transportation.

Audubon should stop the practice of starting new counts in areas and habitats that are already well covered. Counts should have to justify their existence. ALREADY ESTABLISHED COUNTS should have to justify their existence. If they can't they should be retired. I know–this would be a controversial proposal but Audubon's own scientists as well as others have an issue with this. In fact they have some issues with how the counts are done and the value of the data. Here is a link to a 2003/2004 report titled, Improving the Christmas Bird Counts: Report of a Review Panel.

While CBC data have been widely used in scientific publications, the survey was not designed for statistic analysis of population change (i.e., rigorous monitoring), and the data set presents serious challenges that analysts must address if appropriate inferences about populations are to be drawn. As noted by Bock and Root (1981:17): “The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is an enormous but weakly standardized avian count…CBC data are an inappropriate substitute for more controlled census work associated with local projects. Scientists would ignore CBC data altogether, were it not for their potential application to large scale studies.”

Why is it that scientists are wary of using CBC data? The two key issues areas follows.

1) Within circles, counts are not complete censuses, but rather are incomplete samples. Because count effort is not uniform or standardized, the proportion of the true population that is counted each year and in each location is highly variable…

2) Count circles are not randomly selected, but rather are purposefully chosen; often to be near urban areas or in protected and bird-rich locations such as parks or nature preserves. Density of count locations is correlated with human population density. Many data analysts of the past have taken minimal steps to avoid over-representation of geographic areas where count circles are most dense, and it is often an unspoken assumption (as yet untested) that habitat and bird populations within circles are representative of the landscape as a whole.


In reading the report, attempts are being made to make CBC bird data more usable but are many of the counts even needed to get the data? Pictured above are counts in the New Jersey, New York, and Chicago/South Bend areas. This happens more in densely populated areas all over the United States.

If Audubon can create a panel to make the data more valuable why can't they have a panel to make the data greener? They just have to make an effort. Do it for the birds.


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