January 27, 2015
On December 28, everyday people from all over Los Angeles flocked to the Natural History Museum to help count the bird life of L.A.! Some came as beginners ready for an intro to birding from Kimball Garrett, one of the best and most well-known birders in town, who also happens to be the Museum’s Ornithology Collections Manager. Others came because they were interested in contributing to this important bird census, but didn’t plan to see any surprising or remarkable species in our small urban oasis. Little did they know they were in for some surprises.
Kimball started off the morning explaining what the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is all about. He hyped up the activity by reminding everyone that it is the oldest citizen science survey in the world and provides invaluable information on bird population trends. Another fun fact that Kimball shared was that the count began as an alternative to the Christmas “Side Hunt.” As its name implies, this annual activity brought hunters together to compete over how many birds they could kill that day! As concern grew about declining bird populations, the CBC was developed by the Audubon Society as another competitive yet non-lethal alternative to hunting birds. In that first year alone, 25 locations were counted recording 18,500 birds. Cut to 2015, and the numbers are up significantly with over 377 million birds recorded from over 1,265 counts (check CBC as the numbers keep growing). After Kimball’s brief, but inspiring intro and birding tutorial, we went outside to do our own bird count. Thirty three citizen scientists split into two teams and covered the entire Nature Gardens. We counted 207 individual birds representing 21 species within about an hour. This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but the variety of birds and our urban location made the count meaningful and memorable. The day ended up being full of surprises including finding a new Allen’s hummingbird nest (Selasphorus sasin), seeing a majestic American kestrel (Falco sparverius), and finding some birds that don’t often show up in the Nature Gardens—a Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), and a black-throated gray warbler (Setophaga nigrescens)! However, by far our most exciting record that day was of a Common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii). As described in Lila’s 2012 Poorwill blog, although this is a common nocturnal bird of southern California foothills, it isn’t often recorded in the CBC. You see, Common poorwills are hard to find during the day you can hear them vocalizing at night during the breeding season). This nocturnal bird relies on the coloration/texture of leaf litter to hide in. As you can imagine, looking for a silent, barely-moving bird that is the exact same color as the brush and leaves around it is like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack.
Fortunately, in the Nature Gardens we have lots of observant eyes, and the perfect habitat for these awesome birds to hang out in. As a result, we’ve recorded a Common poorwill (very likely the same individual) visiting the Nature Gardens every year since 2012. As scientists and citizen scientists continue to explore more of the urban landscapes more species patterns will become clearer. Surprising species detections like the urban-sensitive poorwill and red bat are trying to remind us that Angelenos still have the opportunity to make L.A. and other urban areas more conducive to human-wildlife coexistence. Will we answer the call? Written by Miguel Ordeñana