My 2019 Christmas Bird Count

Cattle Egret - Bubulcus ibis
Almost caught. A bird not often found in Poway. I found this bird scouting for the Christmas Bird Count at Community Park in Poway California. San Diego County.

Most folks with a passion for birds know about the “Christmas Bird Count”, so for those veterans please indulge me while I say a little bit about it to those who may not know.

In the late 1800s there were contests held around Christmas time in which the contestants would spend the morning shooting all the birds they could, then dump their piles of killed birds where they could be examined by the event judges. The “winner” was determined by the biggest pile of corpses. Conservation causes were still in their infancy. Then, out of concern for declining bird populations, a forward thinking man, Frank Chapman in 1900 convinced his New York friends and neighbors to try counting instead of killing. The idea caught on and today there are Christmas Bird Counts being conducted all across the Western Hemisphere. Today there are almost 2400 locations in 17 or more countries, with almost 72,000 people taking part.

Each year these events are coordinated by the Audubon Society. The counting grounds are called circles. These circles are 15 miles in diameter and arranged in a non-overlapping pattern. Populated areas, such as San Diego County may have several circles (we have six). Each circle is coordinated by individuals (a compiler) or small teams who collect all the data assembled by the volunteers for the day of the count. Count days are not fixed to an exact day, but are set to coincide with the Christmas season. While population counts are imprecise, they provide valuable information on changing bird populations.

San Diego County’s dates are arranged so that enthusiastic volunteers can participate in events on any circle in their area. Count day this year for circle I participate in (Rancho Santa Fe) fell on January 4th. Besides the “Count Day”, there is a “Count Week” starting three days before Count Day and extending three days after. Count Week does not have the sex appeal that Count Day does, but the additional days help establish a better overall picture of bird populations for the season.

Cattle Egret - Bubulcus ibis
Egret showing its impression of a robin to the worm. A bird not often found in Poway. I found this bird scouting for the Christmas Bird Count at Community Park in Poway California. San Diego County.

This year I scouted the areas of Poway near my home for three days before Count Day, where my good friend Kirsten and I have toured for the past several years. My first CBC was in 2011 and I did it solo, but since then I’ve partnered up with Kirsten and it has been a LOT more fun! Our tours start out in the pre-dawn hours, looking and listening for owls. At first light we look for birds in several places in the valley where we hope to find our quarry. This year we missed on several of the species we usually find, and only had 51 for the day, but there was a high point. During my scouting missions I discovered a Cattle Egret foraging on night-crawlers in the rain-soaked grass of the ball fields at Community Park. To my knowledge this is a first for the Poway area, though probably not for the Rancho Santa Fe Circle. Not being sure if the bird would stay for our Saturday count, I spent some time experimenting with a new camera to document the bird’s presence. To our surprise, not only did the bird stay for Count Day, it brought a friend!

A brief word on the pictures: I just bought a mirrorless camera, the Nikon Z7. I’m still learning the features of this system and I hope to get better results in the future. As a fast action capture device I’m uncertain about its full potential. There were a higher number of failed focus shots than I would have had with my D500 or my D5. I need to experiment further with this camera before I can pass judgement, but on the surface it seems best suited to still life. From the reviews I’ve seen, it is at the top of it’s game in capturing video.

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