Wind, rain can't dampen spirits of hardy bird counters

12/24/2012 12:00 AM

12/24/2012 2:26 PM

The wind halted all of their southbound flights, and the rain drove the feathered flocks into bushes and inlets and out of the elements – but not out of the sight of bird watchers who fought off the cold and wet Sunday in the National Audubon Society's 113th annual Christmas Count.

Across the country, the count began Dec. 14 and will run through Jan. 5.

In Sacramento, members of the local Audubon chapter have traditionally chosen the Sunday before Christmas to loop the binoculars around their necks and pack the tripod and scope into the trunk.

The calendar this year couldn't have come up with a more miserable day for the 2012-13 computation.

The wind blew so hard that the rain didn't fall; it stung, as it pelted everything in its way as it sped north, parallel to the ground, keeping Tim Fitzer and fellow bird watchers Jane Taylor and Margaret Martin inside Fitzer's silver Honda Pilot for the better part of the day.

"A lot of birds won't even come out," Fitzer said, as he led his search party across the Conaway Ranch, along a western levee that holds in the Yolo Bypass. "They seek shelter when it's raining like this."

Fitzer, 73, who has been keeping an eye on birds for 40 years, confirmed that the conditions for bird watching were about as bad as they can get.

"Your binoculars and your spotting scopes get all wet," he said. "The rain drops on them and you can't see through them, so it makes it really miserable."

By noon, Fitzer, Taylor and Martin had compiled a list of some 30 species on the two-mile stretch of levee below Main Street, east of Woodland.

They were slated to meet later at a Round Table Pizza in the Natomas area with nine other teams made up of a total of some 100 Sacramento-area bird enthusiasts who scoured the sloughs and swamps and river beds in Sunday's search, to tabulate this season's species list to send into national headquarters.

"You normally wouldn't go bird watching on a day like today," said Taylor, a retired architect. "But it's the day of the count – the only day we have. We have one that goes up to the eastern Sierra behind Tahoe where one year there was so much snow we couldn't make the trip. But I don't think they ever postpone these things."

Nonetheless, the three bird watchers in Fitzer's car were out on a hunt that they enjoy as much as anything in the world.

"They're just so beautiful," Martin, a retired lawyer, said of the feathered objects of their passion. "It's like flying jewelry, or flying art pieces. They're always doing something different, and you never know which ones are going to be there when you go out. It's like going to a party and you know your friends are going to be there, but you don't know which ones."

Love of nature, the joy of being outdoors and even the human company bonds the bird-watching community.

Fitzer said he gets out every weekend with people like Taylor and Martin and others, some of whom he spends more time with than members of his own family.

"They all think we're goofy," Fitzer said.

Fitzer and friends kind of proved it Sunday, with wind and water blowing into their faces and soaking through their parkas and jeans, but not hard and wet enough to deter them from taking part in the count.

The wind was so stiff, a herring gull battling to make its way south instead was blown back to the north.

Bad weather and all, the day produced some highlights.

The team spotted a red-tailed hawk huddling beneath the Interstate 5 overpass, showing good sense to get out of the rain.

Way off in the northwestern distance, a bunch of white somethings compelled Martin to get out her scope and her tripod and set it up in the rain. A quick peek by Martin and they added another species to the list.

"They were swans," she said.

The team also racked up a barn owl and a green heron – "a couple of surprises," Martin said.

A little bit north of the E.T. Foley Game Bird Club, they saw first one, then a dozen and then 100 black-crowned night-heron, huddled low to the water and into the bushes, against the wind.

In some trees growing out of a berm in the rice fields, they spotted a great horned owl with its ears laid back by the gusting air.

They spotted northern shovelers, mallards and other ducks. Coots. A gadwall floated up an irrigation ditch, flocks of mourning doves flew across the levee, and they made the requisite spotting of snow geese, egrets and great blue heron.

If only it weren't so windy and rainy, Fitzer, Taylor and Martin would have set up their scopes and spent the day loading up the score sheet with species spottings all across the bypass, looking east.

Instead of such a visual bounty, Fitzer received a one-word text message from a friend on the other side of the Sacramento River who suggested his count wasn't going much better.

"Sucks," the message said.

Taylor looked at the message and laughed. "I think he put it succinctly," she said.

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