Bird lovers from all over Southern California collected their binoculars and notebooks and flocked to Santa Barbara County for the 104th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
The birds did not fail their loyal audience. Approximately 208 species made their appearances Jan. 3, including two species rare to the Santa Barbara area, the Williamson’s sapsucker and the verdin.
Verdins are tiny birds with yellow faces, gray bodies and short bills. The Williamson’s sapsucker has a different appearance according to gender. The females have a brown body and sometimes have yellow bellies while the males are more colorful with black bodies, white wings, red throats and yellow bellies.
The Williamson’s sapsucker is normally found in forests in central Arizona, New Mexico and south into Mexico. The sapsucker only comes to the Central Coast during its breeding season and was spotted on campus by Melissa Kelly, a UCSB graduate student in the Geography Dept.
“I can only claim credit for finding the bird. A fellow birder from Pismo Beach, Steve Miller, actually identified it,” Kelly said. “I was still puzzling over it when he called out ‘Williamson’s sapsucker!’ He’d seen the species several times before. It was a first for me.”
Mark Holmgren, associate director of the UCSB Museum of Systematics and Ecology, said he has been participating in the Christmas Count for nearly 19 years.
“UCSB is one of the best places to bird watch in the country. The campus lagoon is an extremely good habitat; you can see 45 species of birds,” Holmgren said.
The Williamson’s was not the only good bird found on campus, Kelly said.
“Sometimes [we] have the only red-breasted nuthatches on the count, and this pair on campus has nested here for the past two or three years,” she said. “We also have recently had a black-and-white warbler, a black-throated gray warbler, a lesser nighthawk, a Wilson’s warbler and a peregrine falcon.”
Holmgren spotted the verdin, whose natural habitat is the California desert. Holmgren said he found the verdin before the day of the Christmas Count, when he was doing some preliminary scouting in the San Marcos Foothills.
The Christmas Count began on Christmas day in 1900 to replace an older tradition of hunting for birds on Christmas day.
Dave Compton, a self-employed book editor and biology consultant and a member of the Christmas Count’s compilation committee, said the purpose of the Christmas Count is to “keep track of the population trends and often is a bit of a competition between counties to get the most species.”
According to the Audubon Society, Santa Barbara County has typically been third in the nation’s count of most bird species behind the Texas counties of Mad Island Marsh and Freeport. So far this year, Mad Island has counted 230 species and Freeport has counted 205 species, while Santa Barbara bird watchers found 208 species. The compilation committee will release the official results later this year.
“There’s a sort of convergence that boosts Santa Barbara a bit,” Compton said. “Santa Barbara has a great diversity of habitats. We have mountains, the ocean and the foothills and a lot of exotic plants that bloom around wintertime.”
This environment makes Santa Barbara a most appealing spot for birds to rest during the early winter migration, Compton said.
“If you went out on [any] day … you could probably see at least 100 species,” Holmgren said.
The count period lasts from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 and is considered to be early winter because the southward migration of the birds across North America is still in progress.