The first Christmas bird count was over 100 years ago, in 1900. Today, there are almost 2,000 counts encompassing over a dozen different countries every year around Christmas time. The many decades of records have become an important indicator of the health of both human and wildlife habitats.
Before the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge opened to the public, it consisted mostly of easements and agreements between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and property owners along the San Joaquin River on both the east and west sides of the river where it crosses Highway 132. The local Audubon chapter, Stanislaus Audubon Society, provided the earliest bird studies for the Refuge and has a long history of accessing the area for its annual Caswell/Westley Christmas Count.
The late Judge Wray Ladine relished the competition of local Audubon Christmas counts, when teams of birders try to find more birds or rarer birds in their respective locations within a designated “Count Circle.” I was lucky enough to enjoy several Christmas Counts with Wray as my teammate; he was a boon companion. We usually counted a sector in the pocket formed by the confluence of the San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers. It features an incredible variety of birds, including the formerly endangered Aleutian Canada Goose.
January, 1994—Wray shows up in front of my house in plenty of time for us to grab breakfast at a local diner and then head west before sunrise to private property bordered by Beckwith Road on the north and Highway 132 to the south. Cruising through the thick winter fog, we’re on alert as soon as we enter our sector of the Count Circle and are rewarded by the ghostly form of a Barn Owl perched on a fence post—it’s our first species on the way to what we hope will be over one-hundred total for the day. The ethereal pale bird seems to beckon entry into another world as we leave the busy highway and enter the timeless realm of nature.
Once inside the refuge and adjoining properties, we tick off a couple of more species caught in the headlights, including a drab brown California Towhee and a small flock of Robins roosting in a bare Cottonwood. We’re on our way to one of several small lakes on our territory.
Just as the sun is casting a dim light from the east, we arrive at the lake in time to see several White Pelicans lifting off the water, their huge wings pulling hard through the heavy fog. In the water below the pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants swim with Mallards, Scaup and Canvasbacks. Great Egrets and a Great Blue Heron feed in the shallows around the lake margins and we hear the muted song of a White-crowned Sparrow coming from the brush beyond the egrets.
The pelicans, the ducks, the cormorants cruising with their uplifted bills, the bare brush along the water’s edge, the rippling current, and the sparrow’s song announce the eternal present. The world begins in a hush of wings.
A few yards south of the lake Snowy Egrets are feeding at the edge of a pond full of tules; at our approach they fly into the branches of a bare stand of cottonwoods. They are brighter and whiter even than the larger Great Egrets, and their golden feet, black legs and bills, yellow eyes and shining white plumage dot the dark choir of cottonwoods like melodic notes on a musical bar. Beyond the egrets, a bird is flying low over the open fields. The tilting flight and white rump mark the Northern Harrier. Beneath the egrets around the bare margins of the shallow pond, Least Sandpipers pick at the mud; Long-billed Dowitchers probe the water.
Back in the car and down the dirt road south of Miller Lake, we watch more dowitchers feed in the shallow flood near a withered stand of corn. We park for a closer look. There are Dunlin here too, small grey shorebirds with slightly curved bills and a dingy wash across their breasts. Common Snipe, their golden-brown striped forms hard to see in the winter grass, crouch silently. Black-necked Stilts prance gracefully through the water until the shrill cries of a Greater Yellowlegs give them pause. Out at the edge of the cornfield, White-fronted Geese ignore the alarm. The shrieking Yellowlegs flits back and forth, then settles and begins to feed in the dingy grey water. The Stilts, black above and white below, are long-necked and even longer legged. Their legs are thin, crimson stalks that bend sharply at the knee when they walk.
Down the road, Western Meadowlarks and Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds line the fence that separates the road from the cornfield. To the west, a White-tailed Kite hovers over a grassy field. A Red-tailed Hawk circles above it. Beyond the hunting raptors, the Coast Ranges looms in the mist. We’re adding species in the early morning rush typical of birding a habitat that has preserved many of its natural features. Lakes, ponds, sloughs, grassy fields and riparian corridors host dozens of bird species, each favoring a special niche.
Some have likened counting birds to a kind of golf, where the score is more important than the birds themselves, but when it’s done in the proper spirit, counting birds can lead to a kind of seeing that reveals more than numbers. Anachronisms in the midst of a primordial scene, Wray and I record these moments in nature’s dance and add our own marks to the unfolding natural history of our home region.
On the road again, we bounce heavily over a cattle guard. A Black-crowned Night Heron flushes from a clump of willows along a slough beside the road. Savannah Sparrows, their bright yellow faces glowing in the shrouded light, perch on the barbed wire fence strung along the road. Iridescent Yellow-billed Magpies, tails trailing like streamers, fly alongside the car. Seeing white dots in a field to the east, Wray stops the car and trundles out, his sharp eyes shining. He pulls his Nikon Fieldscope and tripod from the car, extends the legs of the tripod, then aims the scope at the distant birds.
The white dots turn out to be Cattle Egrets. They’re small, like Snowy Egrets, but squat, with thicker necks. Their bills are yellow like those of the Great
Egret. Natives of Africa, they showed up near the southern tip Florida some forty years ago, after a hurricane. The man who reported them was suspected of drunkenness, but he turned out to be right. The adaptable birds have since spread relentlessly west and north, flourishing in the pastures and fields of agrarian North America.
Back in the car, we continue south, then make a sharp turn east, cross another cattle guard and approach another shallow pond, this one surrounded by willows. When we open the car doors, a Great-horned Owl starts from a thick old cottonwood, and Wood Ducks burst from the pond. A trio of smoky blue Sandhill Cranes wends overhead. We watch the deep, awkward wing beats of the cranes as they fly eastward, and hear in the distance the yelps of feeding geese, and the
cries of more geese on the way.
As we begin to walk the margins of the pond, a Black Phoebe flies from a willow, chirps loudly, and returns to its perch on a low branch. Song Sparrows pop from the tules, pump their tails in short, furious flight, then disappear back into the thick marsh vegetation. Lincoln’s Sparrows, forecrowns raised in apparent agitation, crawl to the tops of the cattails, survey, and drop out of sight. Though they’re hard to see, the chittering of Long-billed Marsh Wrens is all around us. A Sora Rail whistles and mews, and then, in the unanticipated way of natural events, we flush a Swamp Sparrow.
A rare visitor from the east, the Swamp Sparrow must be carefully documented so that what is merely a sighting becomes a record. Though its plumage and field marks are distinctive, it’s a sparrow after all, one of those “LBB’s” (Little Brown Birds) that can plague birders because of similarities among different species.
The Swamp Sparrow’s wings and tail are a rusty, brick red, its face is grey, and there is a necklace of thin pencil streaks around its breast. Its flanks are
buffy. It flits in and out of sight, and we follow it closely not only because we must be sure of its identity but because we enjoy seeing out of range birds, for the novelty, the rarity, the element of surprise.
Once we’ve verified and fully enjoyed our rare visitor, we note three Herring Gulls roosting on a berm in the pond. Their pale gray mantles look cold in the winter light; noting our presence, they stretch their wings nervously, then fly off. Beyond them in the water are the deep red outlines of Cinnamon Teal, literally red ducks that radiate intensely saturated color under the overcast sky. Almost at our feet, Yellow-rumped Warblers swarm the clumps of marsh grass on the hunt for low flying insects; another winter surprise, a lone Rough-winged Swallow, darts and dips above the warblers, on its own quest for airborne bugs. Though not as rare as the Swamp Sparrow, the swallow is still a prized sighting because few are seen this far north in the
Suddenly, a burst of tawny brown wings erupts from the tules and we see a frantic American Bittern beating its wings against the heavy air; it flies a short distance and disappears into the dense marsh vegetation. When calm returns, Wray hears a Yellowthroat singing deep in the cattails. The birds are coming in bunches, each one carrying a significance beyond word or number, though we count them anyway, and try to track them with words better written on water.
Along the eastern edge of the pond an American Kestrel flies into a clump of willows and settles on a bare snag, bobbing its tail. The bird is a medley of orange, grey, black and white, with metallic blue wings. It is almost iridescent in this light, and dazzles even on this day of dazzling visitations. A Red-shafted Flicker flies by, fanning its orange-lined wings, and we can hear nearby the throaty “burrrt” of a Nuttall’s Woodpecker. We finally locate the bird on a crooked willow branch, and just below the Nuttal’s another Woodpecker, this one a Downy. Both birds are males, with patches of crimson on their crowns and napes.
We look for Common Moorhens in the tule-filled slough that runs south from the pond, but today there are no Moorhens, only a small flock of Mallards lifting off the dark water into the dim grey sky. Close to the distant bank beyond the Mallards, a lone Green-winged Teal is still as the unmoving sky.
It’s cold and time for coffee. Wray and I fill our cups, and, after a brief respite, drive south again, toward Highway 132. On the way we encounter a mixed flock of Ross’s and Snow Geese. These white geese with their black-tipped wings are almost identical, but the Ross’s Geese are smaller, and have stubbier bills. The geese are headed for the brown remnants of a corn field near the highway. Once near enough, we park and pull out our scopes, so as not to disturb the feeding geese.
The corn stalks are long since knocked down and trampled, but the geese find plenty of kernels to feast on as they join a commerce of feeding companions, including Canadian Geese and their smaller brethren, Aleutian and Cackling Geese. The diminutive Aleutians, an endangered species, have a distinctive white collar at the base of their necks. There are thousands of geese here, and the chorus of goose music produces a joyous din like the sound of an orchestra dominated by tin trumpets. Among the geese we see black dots that turn out to be feeding crows, blackbirds and starlings. Perched on a pole in a pasture opposite the stubble field is a Loggerhead Shrike. It makes a periodic hunting sortie over the cold ground. An undulating flock of LBB’s flies by and lands on the power lines along the highway—House Finches. The males have rosy red crowns and rumps that
brighten the drab sky.
We tally several thousand geese, a small total of the refuge and ranch population, then return to the car and drive west toward the levee that runs along the San Joaquin River. Along the way we note the flashing white wing patches and barred tail of a Red-shouldered Hawk in flight.
We park on the levee. Exiting the car we hear scolding Scrub Jays and the chattering of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, tiny birds that exhibit energy and noise that belie their size. In quick succession we record Orange-crowned Warbler, Plain Titmouse and a pair of Mockingbirds. Wray sees a hovering Anna’s Hummingbird and in the oak above it a small flock of American Goldfinches form a golden diadem in the branches.
Northeast of the house a small lake hosts Ruddy Ducks, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, Canvasbacks, Gadwall and American Coots. A Common Moorhen floats near a clump of cattails, its bright red bill almost glowing. Nearby, Killdeer feed in the short grass around the pond. A port in the cold air, the lake is surrounded by skeins of incoming and outgoing waterfowl, cascading in torrents as they call back and forth the eternal symphony of life on earth.
Back in the car, we take a dirt road to a field of millet where hundreds of sparrows flock and feed. Golden-crowns, White-crowns, Lark and Lincoln’s Sparrows frolic in the field among a huge flock of Red-winged Blackbirds.
Back on the levee, we head north to a wide slough where we record Wood Ducks and American Wigeon. Among the Wigeon is a Europeon Wigeon, only the fourth record for Stanislaus County. It is another, “Category 5,” joining the Swamp Sparrow in the exclusive group of most elusive Christmas Count targets.
We have been birding for hours and have yet to find a Green-backed Heron. It is a shy and furtive creature and can elude even the most determined birders. A Sharp-shinned Hawk flaps and glides across the road and we push on, now racing against time in the winter-shortened day.
Down the road is a California Thrasher, probing the ground beneath an Atriplex with its scythe-shaped bill. Above it, the bold black and white pattern of a Rufous-sided Towhee catches our eyes, its orange flanks and fiery red eye blazing in the dingy grey brush. A Fox Sparrow digs earnestly in the leafy debris under the bush.
Now we’re checking our list and thinking of the birds we haven’t seen, Dark-eyed Juncos, Horned Larks and Lesser Goldfinches, even of House Sparrows and Brown-headed Cowbirds, two of the species birders ordinarily ignore as they are so common, especially in urban habitat. And of course, the heron. Poring over our list we almost miss a Vee formation of eighty Tundra Swans, gigantic and powerful rulers of the dim gray sky.
In hopes of Juncos and Lesser Goldfinches we search an oak grove where we find a flock of Bushtits but no Juncos and no finches. Under the thick trunks and gnarled branches it is quiet as a deserted cathedral.
Back on the levee and down the road another pond produces a rare winter Blue-winged Teal, its metallic blue head and straw-colored body standing out in group of more common Cinnamon Teal. This is another good bird, this Blue-winged Teal, but we’re still shy birds we should have seen by now.
We backtrack to some of our morning haunts and Wray gets the Lesser Goldfinches almost as soon as he’s out of the car. I record House and Bewick’s Wrens as the action picks up in the last part of daylight. We get American Pipit and Western Bluebird. In the dim light the intense blue of the Bluebird is unlike anything we know outside nature.
We push on rapidly now, checking ditches, sloughs and pond margins for the Green Heron. As darkness falls, Wray finally gets a small flock of Juncos and we both see a Cooper’s Hawk skulking in the tangled branches of oaks and cottonwoods. In the fading light a coyote lopes across the road in front of us and disappears into a thicket. We hope for both Cowbird and House Sparrow near the barn and corrals we’ve come to, but we’re skunked again. Consolation comes in the form of a small flock of Horned Larks feeding on the ground next to a corral. A Say’s Phoebe flits around the fence.
Slowly making our way out and back to paved roads and busy people, headlights illuminating the road ahead, we search as best we can for yet another species. We’re over one-hundred, and have seen tens of thousands of birds, but the Green-backed Heron remains uncounted, inhabiting a secure mystery that both beckons and prevails.