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Winter Birding: Best Time to Begin (1/'97)

Happy New Year! Many use the turning over of the calendar as an opportunity to turn over a new leaf and resolve to be better in something. For those of you who have expressed a desire to be a better birder there is no better time than right now. Not because you will have the rest of your life to enjoy being better, which is true, but because now is the easiest it will be for another year. Why? Because the number of species is at its lowest during the winter.

Inyo County has 401 species. Each species has male and female plumages, often different; spring and fall plumages, often different; and juvenile and immature plumages, often different from each other and different from each of the parents; 2-3 races of some species; plus slight individual variations just like people. In other words, over one thousand different plumages for 401 different birds! Starting when there are about 100 species, no juveniles, and most immatures look much like the parents makes this a manageable goal. The other piece of good news is that many of the confusing families are gone. Flycatchers, except Black and Say's Phoebes, vireos, and warblers, except Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) and Orange-crowned (only occasionally) Warblers have left for warmer climes.

Rule #1: Learn the common birds well. Cold winters are a great time to curl up next to the fire with your bird book and study, study. study. Use the list provided of the more common birds and give a thorough look at each listed bird in your book. When you see the bird later you may not remember the name but that it was in the upper right corner of the page. That's great! Study the birds, with book in hand, that come in to your feeder or yard. Go to a park and study the birds, with book in hand, that are swimming in the water or are perched in the trees. Drive along dormant alfalfa fields and study the hawks and sparrows, with book in lap, that soar overhead or scatter into the Russian thistle at your advance. Take a leisurely walk and see what other birds are around your neighborhood but haven't come into your yard. It won't be long until you will leave the book in your pocket or in the car because you will have learned all the common birds.

Rule #2: Keep a list. Write down what you saw, when, and how many. If you see a bird that you did not recognize write a description of it and go through the list and your bird book to see if you can find it. The diligent effort you extend will be richly rewarded not only in terms of knowledge gained but with the satisfaction of knowing that you did it right!

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The Winter of 1996-1997 in Inyo

Winter is the wild card of a birding year as it is the most variable and unpredictable of the seasons. We never know which winter visitors to expect from the north or if any mountain species will descend from heaven knows where.The weather has been, thus far, relatively mild. Ice on Haiwee and Tinemaha reservoirs and Klondike Lake has been virtually non-existent. All this added up to another winter with its many surprises. Most spectacular was a great infusion of birds that are normally associated with the mountains. This included Clark's Nutcrackers, Mountain Chickadees, several species of nuthatches, Cassin's Finches, Brown Creepers, Gray-crowned Rosy Finches, Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Siskins.

This phenomenon was not just a local one but had far reaching effects over all of the western states. While some feel that the occurrence of mountain species in the lowlands just means that birds have come down from the high country nearby, others feel that often these birds have traveled great distances.

Victor Emanual, founder of one of the largest bird tour companies in the country, VENT, called it the largest invasion of northern or mountain species since 1972 (Birdletter vol.20: p.4). Victor attributed this invasion to a very dry summer in the western mountains, resulting in poor food production. The birds are thus forced to move from their normal wintering grounds to the lowlands to locate food.

The big question is where do the Inyo County visitors originate? In an effort to answer this question we have banded many hundreds of these birds in Big Pine this winter. Among the most frequent finds in the nets have been pink and purple Cassin's Finches, yellow and black American Goldfinches and streaked Pine Siskins. Now we wait and hope that researchers in the summering areas will re-net them and report the findings to the Bird Banding Lab in Maryland, which in turn will notify us and we will notify you!

In addition to mountain or northern visitors a few other bird observations are noteworthy. Tundra Swans normally return to Inyo County the first week of November. The earliest ever was 22 Oct 1966 at Little Lake. This winter two birds tied that record when they showed up at Klondike Lake. These swans normally depart the last week of February or the first week of March 5 so it was a surprise when they departed the second week of January. A hard northern freeze could cause their reappearance but at this date it was the earliest departure on record.

Prior to this year hummingbirds have been recorded every month except January. This year two different male Anna's Hummingbirds frequented our feeders from 8 January into February. A heat lamp on the feeder at night assures that the syrup remains unfrozen for an early dawn visit. An incongruous sight was one male singing while sitting at the feeder soaking up the heat lamp while snowflakes fell all around him. The Anna's Hummingbird is the hardiest of all hummingbirds and Ridgecrest typically reports over a dozen on their Christmas Counts so having a couple remain during a mild winter is no longer unexpected.

Another surprise was a one day visit to our yard by a Lark Bunting where it flew into a net, got a pretty aluminum band and was released only to disappear completely. A quick call to Jim and Debby Parker in Bishop assured us that they still had "their" Lark Bunting. So were these two Lark Buntings the only ones in the whole county and both were seen by birders? Not likely! Also new to our yard and very unusual on the valley floor were four Gray-crowned Rosy Finches who arrived the morning after the January snow huddling together with House Sparrows and blackbirds gathering seeds and energy in protected areas.

The singing by Mockingbirds, Bewick's Wrens, Song Sparrows, House Finches, and White-crowned Sparrows heralds the end of winter and promises another exciting spring migration. Our first migrants have already returned with the chestnut flash of four Cinnamon Teal landing at Dirty Socks on 23 January followed by a very early Turkey Vulture seen in Independence by Andrew Kirk on 28 January followed by a Tree Swallow pulled out of the blue sky at Owens Lake by Larry Nahm on 1 February. We have all been dealt another hand of cards, maybe slightly more predictable than winter's but not without surprises. It's time to go play!

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International Migratory Bird Day

Enjoy a great day of spring birding and celebrate the return of neotropical migrants on the 10th of May! This is the fifth annual international celebration but the first for the Owens Valley. Maryland has been celebrating the return of migrants since 1948 and Illinois, Indiana and Delaware since the seventies. Partners in Flight (PIF), a coalition of more than 12 federal and 50 state government agencies, dozens of universities, more than 20 private organizations such as National Audubon Society and Nature Conservancy, and the forest products industry, have united in an effort to bring all the forces to bear on reversing the decline in migratory bird populations. Scientists are very concerned about neotropical migrants, the more than 200 species that breed in the United States and Canada and then fly south to spend most of the year in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Habitat destruction on the breeding grounds, in the wintering areas and along migration routes is the most devastating force facing these songbirds. Deep forest birds have suffered the most because of the practice of clearing virgin forests. Small patches of forests or woodlots may seem like adequate habitat but they afford little protection against predators that destroy eggs and young, or Brown-headed Cowbirds that lay their eggs in the nests of other birds.

Some years the numbers are up slightly and other years are they are down slightly but a line drawn through the average is descending. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have decreased by more than 40 percent and Blackpoll Warblers by more than 60 percent. These are just two examples from a too lengthy list. Our area used to have much larger numbers of Yellow Warblers, Willow Flycatchers, Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Yellow-breasted Chats, Bank Swallows and Bells Vireos. The later hasnt been seen in the valley since 1976; the others are in trouble here, too. Other familiar bird families that are in jeopardy are orioles, hummingbirds, swallows, thrushes, warblers, vireos and tanagers.

The first celebration of International Migratory Bird Day in Owens Valley will be an effort to take a picture of migration throughout the valley by conducting a day-long bird count. Each of the four major towns in the Owens Valley has organized a team led by a coordinator who assigns interested participants to cover special areas in and around the town. Records are kept on what was seen, where, and in what numbers. The coordinator then compiles the team information and this in turn is added to the data from the other towns. The result is a photograph of what migration looked like on one day during spring migration in the Owens Valley. Over time these snapshots will reveal a bigger picture on the health and well-being, or the lack thereof, of neotropical migrants.

Much is learned from long-term projects such as Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys, and now International Migratory Bird Day. This day of celebration will be advertised in the Inyo Register so if you would like to share in the joy of birding and at the same time contribute data for an important project call your town coordinator in the evening before 8PM and beat the rush.

Bishop: Jim Parker 872-4447 (all day)

Big Pine: Jo Heindel 938-2764 (after 5 May)

Independence: Leah Kirk 878-2222

Lone Pine: Judy Wickman 876-5202

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Teamwork: Migratory Bird Day Report (9/'97)

From dawn until almost dusk thirty observers covered the Owens Valley and the eastern Sierra canyons searching for all the birds they could find.The goal of the day was to have as much fun as possible which according to reports was successful but the information garnered surprised all who took part. Some interesting statistics: 165 different species were found totaling over 6300 individual birds; of the 165 species 127 were neotropical migrants, that is, birds who spend the winter in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean and migrate north to breed in Alaska, Canada, and North America; most common bird was the American Coot (460) followed too closely by the European Starling (368); and almost 250 observer hours were recorded. Each of these statistics set a new record because nothing like this had ever been attempted. Each town had a team and each town turned up some interesting birds that none of the other teams had. The Lone Pine team, made up of Judy Wickman, Mike Prather, Bob & Barb Toth, Pat & Carl Boyer, and Shawn Morrison, had a Common Moorhen, Northern Pygmy-Owl, White-headed Woodpecker, Pinyon Jay, Summer Tanager, and a Harris Sparrow that no other team saw. The Independence team, made up of Leah & Andrew Kirk and Larry Nahm, were the only ones to find a Green Heron, Blue Grouse, Lesser Nighthawks, Olive-sided Flycatcher, and a Le Contes Thrasher. The Big Pine team, made up of Jo & Tom Heindel, Earl & Carolyn Gann, Penny Ashworth, Stan Kleinman, and Sam Glasser, were the only ones to see Western & Clarks Grebes, Double-crested Cormorants, a Bufflehead, Golden Eagle, Snowy Plover,Least Sandpiper,Greater Roadrunner,Calliope Hummingbirds, Red-naped Sapsucker, Dusky Flycatchers, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, American Dipper, Sage Thrasher, and a dozen Solitary Vireos. The Bishop team, made up of Jim & Debby Parker, Larry & Ruth Blakely, John & Dee Finkbeiner, Chris Howard, Barry & Bonnie Howard, and Kathy Duvall were the only ones to find Snowy Egrets, Wood Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, Black Tern, Downy Woodpeckers, Hammonds Flycatcher, Bank Swallow, Canyon Wrens, Black-and-white Warbler, and aVesper Sparrow. The bad news is that we found 176 Brown-headed Cowbirds. Some quick math. If half were females and each female lays 30 eggs this season (the accepted average) 2,640 cowbird eggs were laid. Assuming some cowbird mortality, although it seems to be lower than one could hope for, 2,600 passerines like Willow Flycatcher, Yellow Warbler, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Yellow-breasted Chat, etc. were not raised this year. How many more years can this go on? All the participants are ready to do it again next year. Why dont you plan on joining us and have one of the most enjoyable and exhausting days of your life!

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Christmas Bird Counts (11/'97)

In the 1800s tradition was that the day after Christmas the men in the family went a-hunting to see how successful they could be. By the end of the century an awareness of the slaughter led Dr. Frank M. Chapman and the National Audubon Society to start the Christmas Bird Counts where the competition was as furious as with the hunters but the object was to count coup, that is, to see as many birds as possible in one day and let them live to fly away. Shortly guidelines were designed so that all teams were playing by the same rules. The count was for a 24 hour period, midnight to midnight and the area to be covered was within a circle with a 15 mile diameter. The count is now sponsored by both National Audubon Society and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. Each count has a compiler that organizes his team of volunteers to get the most coverage, and therefore, the most accurate count of wintering birds in the area. Competition between counts is fun and friendly with the warmer states, CA, TX, & FL vying with one and another for top honors. Sometimes the Alaska count receives accolades for the tenacity and determination of the birders when they spend all day in sub-zero weather for a couple of Ravens! The data are published in Audubon Field Notes (formerly American Birds) with the numbers and names of the birds and birders along with the modes of transportation which is exhaustive. In the unending quest to find every possible bird the means used have included snowshoes and sleigh, horseback and canoe, marsh buggy and helicopter and even an electric golf cart! In the ninety-sixth Christmas Bird Count conducted in December 1995-January 1996, there were 45,329 field observers and 7220 feeder watchers who tallied 58,287,941 individual birds on 1665 counts. The 58 million birds was far down because the tremendous roost of blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, and starlings (sometimes nearly 100 million) happened to be outside all of the count circles. Inyo County has three Christmas Counts: Death Valley and Lone Pine (Mike Prather, compiler) and Bishop (Earl Gann, compiler).  Make this year the first of your annual winter outing events and call the compilers to offer your services. They, and the wintering birds of Inyo County, could use your help.

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