Audubon Society holds annual bird count

For almost a century, Southland bird lovers have ventured out at dawn on winter days to tally every flash of feathers and every call they can identify. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is in progress around the United States until early next month. KPCC's Molly Peterson met some participants in Malibu.

Molly Peterson: A birder named Larry Allen strolls Malibu Bluffs Park with a clipboard, eating a wheat bread sandwich. Allen's very serious title is Compiler for the Malibu Bird Count. But he's a mellow and self-effacing guy.

Larry Allen: "Birdwatcher" implies some kind of a dilettante, little-old-lady-in-tennis-shoes kind of thing. Whereas a "birder" implies someone serious and hardcore, and someone who takes themselves seriously. So I use "birdwatcher" as a contrarian.

Peterson: Allen and the other bird lovers at the Christmas count are serious about their data and their observations.

Allen: It's not good enough for me to say, "I saw a red head duck today." I'm going to have to write a description of him. Because 20 years from now, no one will know who I am, and they can always go back to the description and say, "No, that fool didn't see that. He saw something else." Now admittedly it's a loosey goosey way of doing it. We're not sending people on point counts, or stopping them so many meters. But we're doing them the same way time after time.

Allen (talking to crowd): One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Seven people have been doing this for 30 years. Thank you. Wow. (Applause)

Peterson: Birders experienced enough to count well are usually older. Twenty-six-year-old Aditya Chachad is a newbie.

Aditya Chachad: I actually didn't know that I would be learning so much.

Peterson:Chachad studies public health at USC. He likes to hike, but he's never looked for birds before.

Chachad: In less than a mile, we had 20 species. I was pretty amazed to know different kinds of birds. I always knew them, but I didn't know them by their names. It was like, the blue bird had a name today, so it was kind of good.

Allen (doing an inventory): Gadwal? Yes. Widgeon? Yes. Mallard? Yes. Cinnamon teal...

Peterson: Larry Allen gathers counters at the picnic tables for the mid-day inventory. Malibu's usual list includes about 165 species of birds.

Allen: Pomerine yeager? Or parasitic yeager? (coastal bird squawks) Common muir? (coastal bird squawks again)
Birder: Your western gull just answered. (Laughter)

Peterson: The roll call satisfies everyone's curiosity, and gives Allen a sense of which species are still missing.

Allen: Northern harrier? (silence) Oh, come on people. (Laughter) You're going to have to go back out there and look some more...

Peterson: A little joke – some people are done with the cold – but Mary Freeman will go back out to Liberty Canyon. She's the head of Audubon's L.A. chapter, and she taught herself bird names as a kid.

Mary Freeman: Growing up, I lived in Lincoln Heights, in northeast L.A., and my mother would call the local birds by Spanish names. There's the hooded oriole, which she called the "pajaro Amarillo," which is literally just "the yellow bird." And we would hear the chatter, and we would go out and look at it in the yard.

Peterson: The Christmas count lasts longer now so people like Freeman can go to several places. She and her husband Nick are the compilers for the Antelope Valley count... a tougher nut than Malibu.

Nick Freeman: we're kind of out in the desert and everyone's got to hoof it over the hill, and we don't have the large bodies of water that frequently pull in the species. So we have to work a little harder for our birds out in the flatlands. But it's an important area to trend; it's going through a lot of expansion.

Mary Freeman: Within the last two years, a Walmart has gone up. And so a lot of the Joshua trees have been destroyed; more and more housing coming up. It's very sad. But we're out there doing our job.

Peterson: Larry Allen says it's part of the job to go to Malibu Lagoon in the afternoon; he wants a longer look at big flocks of gulls. But Steve and Becky Turley, who tag along, don't seem to be working as they gaze at a kingfisher.

Becky Turley: And the females have some rust and blue. It's one of the few species where the females have more color than the males... Put the scope on it, dear. (marsh wren calls)

Peterson: Marsh wrens in the rushes are one of a short dozen of species just steps from Pacific Coast Highway. Down the beach, among the rocks, Allen sees a snowy plover, an endangered species in California.

Allen: Snowy plover numbers were up. I had 40... I think 48 or 49 this year, and last year we only had 20-some-odd, so that's good.

Peterson: Audubon publishes results from its annual Christmas count months after the fact. Understanding the trends they track takes years. But Allen says just doing the count makes it a success.

Note: The next Audubon bird count is tomorrow (Saturday 12/20). To find out more, visit the Los Angeles Audubon Web site