Counting the birds in the hills

There was a full moon. It was cool and misty. One other thing – it was around 3:30 in the morning. The handful of birding enthusiasts met to look for owls in fields and hills around Morgan Hill and South Valley.

“You couldn’t believe it up on the mountain. It was windy,” said Jean Myers of Gilroy, who led four teams of owlers at that hoary hour before forming sections to begin the sixth annual Calero-Morgan Hill Christmas Bird Count for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society.

All in all, the group of 60-plus local birders, doing citizen science, racked up an impressive count of 141 bird species before the afternoon was over around 4pm. Last winter, it was 147. Birders over a 15-mile radius scoured places such as Anderson County Park, Coyote Ridge, including Coyote Creek, throughout Morgan Hill to the outreaches of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The earliest birders heard three owls, because it was too dark to see the avians – a barn owl, Western screech-owl and great horned owl. Grasslands and farmlands later produced American avocets (the chapter’s newsletter is called “The Avocet”) and black-necked stilts. “This sounds kind of funny,” said Myers. “You don’t get that many shorebirds out here.”

“We’re really not looky-loos,” she added. “If you ever see birders peeking near your car, it’s probably just a bunch of folks who love birds.”

Christmas Bird Counts began in 1900 when bird lovers began “side counts” to turn the country’s attention away from customary “side hunts,” when hunters combed areas to see how many birds they could bag. It is the 104th year of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.

In the South Valley, the Calero-Morgan Hill and Mt. Hamilton bird counts took place over two weeks. According to Myers, the count is important because it gives an overall picture of the natural health of the area, and of the bird species present.

“It can’t be completely accurate, of course,” she said. “You can’t be in the bushes. In fact, a lot of the U.S. isn’t counted. But it does show migration patterns and the effect of global warming on bird movements.”

Any special finds? A field of about 160 horned larks near Cochrane Road next to St. Louise Hospital, according to Myers. The birds are usually found at higher elevations, such as Mt. Hamilton.

A collection field and pond near Butterfield Road held more than 100 long-billed dowitchers, said Myers, as well as greater yellowlegs, both water birds. “The more human activity in an area, the more hostile it is to birds,” Myers commented. “I’m not against people being there, but without ruining habitat for the birds.”

Fields and backyards produced the commoners – the white and golden-crowned sparrows, blackbirds and hundreds of Canada geese, but a trip to Anderson Reservoir revealed a peregrine falcon chasing a bald eagle, said Emily Curtis, 76. “We saw it for about four minutes,” said Curtis, a 40-year Morgan Hill resident who was celebrating her 61st Christmas Bird Count.

And, although it was the day the cold front moved into the area, core birders completed the Calero-Morgan Hill count even with the clouds and drizzle.

“The biggest disappointment was not seeing a single burrowing owl,” said Jim Wright of Morgan Hill.

Wright, who teaches at PA Walsh School, advises budding birders to go out with advanced people. “I spent 15 years with binoculars and a bird book. You learn a lot more with people.” For him, highlights included a belted kingfisher, as well as a “beautiful” male wood duck with a female along Coyote Creek.

With a morning temperature of around 31 degrees atop Mt. Hamilton, the bird-count crew of about 15 birders on Jan. 2 tallied more than 85 species, including six greater roadrunners and a Townsend’s solitaire. Other highlights were a male and female bufflehead duck floating peacefully along a pond at the Arnold Ranch in the deep eastern foothills, and northern flickers flashing through the ranchland woods.

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