Sunday, July 3, 2016

Our Final Breeding Bird Survey

We ran our tenth and last Breeding Bird Survey on the last weekend in June. It has become too much for us to do evening chores early, drive 2 1/2 hours to our camping area, get up at 4 the next morning to eat breakfast and hike into our first stop where we must begin our three minute count at 4:58 a.m., then scurry to finish all 50 stops located approximately one-half mile apart, ideally by 10 a.m., (we never quite make it), then drive home and do "morning" chores... in early afternoon.

It has been an adventure. Some years more of an adventure than others. One year our pickup sprang a leak in the transmission fluid on our scouting trip a week before the actual count. Some kind passers by gave us a ride to Dallas. Theirs was the only car we had seen all day. It is not a well-traveled road. Our mechanic friend and neighbor towed the pickup out.  It got a new transmission that year.

Another year we drove through open gates on our way up but found one closed on our way back early the next morning. Fortunately, it was closed but not locked. There is no cell phone service up there and it would have been a very, very long walk out.

One year when Johnny's back kept him from joining me on the early morning hike to our first stop, I wandered off the "trail" and fell into a hole left by a giant root wad. Fortunately, I did not break anything and was able to scramble out of the hole with nothing more than a few scratches.

This year we discovered on our scouting trip two weeks before the actual survey that a huge old growth fir had fallen across our camping area, totally blocking our access to the trail to Stop #1. However, it was sort of climbable and Johnny assured me he would park the van right next to the log and we could climb up the van's ladder and onto the log. Splits in the log on the other side provided steps of a sort to get down.

One happy discovery was that on the other side of that huge downed log, the trail to our first stop had been cut open by Marbled Murrelet surveyors who had a survey site just beyond our Stop #1. So instead of our usual hour of bushwhacking our way in on this scouting trip, we had only to hike to our spot and clip a few stray branches. There was another downed log to climb over enroute but not as huge as the one at our campsite. That left us time to hike the "real" trail from the Valley of the Giants kiosk (our Stop # 5).

Sean Burgett accompanied us on this scouting trip. He had responded to my plea on the bird email lists to take over this route starting next year. He is a perfect fit... grew up in the area, has cruised timber and surveyed owls nearby, knows and loves the area... and knows the birds! Together, we marveled at the size of these old growth trees along the trail in the Valley of the Giants.

 The following two photos were taken by Sean's phone...


Because of other obligations, it was two weeks before Johnny and I could run the actual route. We arrived in gathering darkness at our campsite. Johnny parked as close as he could to the downed log and I practiced climbing up on the back bumper, then the ladder of the van, then to the top of the log and carefully down the other side. At 4:30 in the morning, it is usually very dark and I did not want to break a leg on my final BBS. As it turned out, luck was with us as a moon came up and gave us light in the morning.., plus it helped that the huge old growth fir was down on the ground instead of up blocking the night sky. We still needed flashlights, but between the moon and the pre-cleared trail, it was by far our easiest trip in to Stop #1.

I heard an owl the night before that I could not identify. Plus a different one at Stop #1 in the morning that I also wasn't sure of. I have sent descriptions to the BLM biologist who is in charge of monitoring owls in that area and he is checking it out. I heard a for-sure Barred Owl at Stop #4 (Who Cooks for You?) and Marbled Murrelets at several stops. With just 3 minutes to listen at each stop, there is no time for deliberation. Then we tear off over the washboard gravel road to the next stop.

Although there is no time for photos on the route, I couldn't resist taking a minute to photograph a Common Yellowthroat bringing insects to its chick in a marshy area on one of our stops.

And this Cedar Waxwing sitting up in plain view in another stop begged for a photo. This was the only Cedar Waxwing I saw this day. Johnny said he saw two of them, but, as per BBS rules, I can only log what I see and hear.

The weather was dry and clear most of the morning, although fog moved in at several stops dampening the birds' enthusiasm for singing. That's okay as at most stops the Swainson's Thrushes, in particular, are so many and so noisy it's hard to hear anything else. A dawn chorus of Varied and Swainson's Thrushes, Pacific Slope Flycatchers, Pacific Wrens, Warbling Vireos and others is a mite overwhelming to sort out.

By the time we reach stop #50, I'm always hungry and cranky. We ate our lunch quickly and then headed home to some also very hungry horses and impatient goats.

Here is Johnny at the last stop of the day on our last Breeding Bird Survey.

 It has been an interesting ten years and I'm glad to have helped document the waxing and waning of some species that need old growth forests, plus the changes as forests go from clear cuts to young trees to older trees. Our route, although all timbered, has many steps in the succession and each age of forest harbors different species of birds.

I look forward to hearing about Sean's adventures in the coming years... while I sit comfortably at home.

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