Saturday, Jan. 6, 2007 | Richard Hodges, a 72-year-old Kensington resident, was one of the organizers responsible for coordinating San Diego’s 52nd Christmas Bird Count. More than 100 birders fanned out across the region in mid-December and surveyed bird life, looking for population trends. They spotted more species than they’ve ever seen before. Hodges sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to talk about the count, what was found, what we can learn and where you can go to spot exotic birds during the upcoming spring migration.
Tell me a little bit about the bird count you just finished.
The idea is to do a census of bird species and population with in a 15-mile circle. … I do it just because I’ve become, over the past 12 years, a pretty avid birder. It’s a hobby that I find has a lot of satisfaction to it, every time I go out I see something new that I find interesting and stimulating. The more I do it, the more involved I become. …
We get a team to do the census in 33 areas. A lot of the people that participate have done so for a long period of time. We generally have in the high 90s to low 100s participate, manning these 33 areas.
Tell me what you all found.
In total, we found 218 species and sub-species, which has been the record over the last three years, which I find pleasing. I feel it’s largely because we’re getting more people involved. The more eyes you have, the more you’re likely to find. Last year, we had 200, which tied us for fifth in North America in total species seen. We tied with two other California bird counts, one in Santa Barbara and coastal Orange County. So that’s pretty good. We always lag behind some counts in Texas. They tend to get Mexican rarities. But we’re not too far behind.
How many birds overall were spotted?
The total number of birds was 87,338. The major reason for that was the Pacific Loon, compared to the prior year, was huge. There was a big migratory flyby that occurred on the date. The other one was Surf Scoters. That was really big. There were an estimated 22,000 of those flying in there. That was the major reason for the increase in birds. That occurs every year — the time has to be right. At the end of Point Loma, you tend to see a lot of that.
You talk about this as a large citizen science project. What do we learn from it?
Well, you’re looking at population trends. There are things that have dwindled substantially. There are things of concern, as habitat is lost, you have certain species that are dwindling. Overall, for instance, the loggerhead shrike has declined substantially over the last 50 years. It’s just because the habitat is not there any more. The burrowing owl is becoming more constricted. The Western Scrub Jay in three years went from 142 to 79. That is a trend that I hope doesn’t continue. The crow, however, was up substantially. But the raven shows a slight decline. Species by species you can go through this and try to establish a rationale.
To what extent is the one-day survey scientific? To what extent does migration play a role in what you spot?
It’s not as scientific as the San Diego Bird Atlas, which was a five-year study. But as a snapshot in time, you know, just the number gives an insight. But conditions vary in terms of weather. The date is not exactly the same each year. So it’s not completely apples-and-apples. But it’s enough that it’s valid.
How would you rate our species diversity here, both from what you found this year and over time?
There are unusual things going on. For the first time in a long time, we had a Crested Caracara here in the Dairy Mart Road area. There are other things that have come here that demonstrate trends: The Great-tailed Grackle, which is really a Texas bird, has progressively migrated west and north. The Eurasian Collared-Dove has arrived in the county for the first time this year. And there were 22 of them, so they’re coming in numbers. That’s a concern because it’s competing with more native birds.
Competing for what?
Both for food and nesting sites. They’re not a raptor as such, but they’re more and more moving up the coast. And who knows what the impact of global warming will be here. If it continues, we should see more birds that are Mexican inhabitants moving in. In the last few years, Black-throated Magpie Jays have been showing up in the Tijuana River Valley. That’s a bird that wasn’t seen here before. There’s a potential they may be caged-bird escapees, but they’re breeding here. Their range is increasing. Those are things that are showing up in the count. This is the fourth year they’ve shown up.
What other trends have you spotted?
Every year you’ll find some difference. Three years ago, there was an eruption of higher-altitude birds in the area. That could have been from the Cedar Fire, perhaps. The food source had obviously been impacted wherever they were, so they moved down from their normal range to here. But they weren’t present this year. Four years ago, we had a half-a-dozen unusual warblers here, the types that might range from Texas to the eastern part of the country. We have a fairly constant population of Eurasian Widgeons. Once they tend to come, that same bird will show up time after time.
Are there particular hotspots that were responsible for a majority of sightings? Are there places that you would recommend for other birders to see exotic species?
Point Loma, particularly during the migrating times in spring and fall, is a hotspot because of its locale. And that’s where you’re likely to see vagrants show up. If you go down to the sod farms (along the border) there are some unusual things that show up there from time to time. Those are where rarities show up more often than anyplace in the county. The thing about San Diego County is our diversity of habitat. We have like nine different habitats: desert, mountain, freshwater lakes, sea coast, sandy beaches, rocky beaches, coastal chaparral. We have seen, I believe, 493 species within San Diego County. This is the most of any county of a comparable size in the United States.
Is there a regional competitiveness to the count?
There’s bound to be. Especially once you start listing (the species you’ve seen in your life), it becomes something of a passion. I’ve been places I never would have been if it weren’t for birds.
St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Sea. I’ve visited Ely, Minnesota. I’ve been out to the Dry Tortugas off Florida. The Everglades. Big Bend National Park, where there’s nothing for miles and miles. Nova Scotia. We’re actually going to Ecuador soon.
What attracted you to birding?
I’ve always been interested in nature. But what really triggered it, we were living in Santa Barbara at the time. There’s a birding spot there, a man-made little lake. We had a habit of walking around it. One afternoon, we were out hiking, and there was some dry brush. Perched on top of it was a Vermilion Flycatcher. The light was beautiful. And the bird just looked like a jewel. It’s vivid red with black wings, a very handsome bird. I searched my memory and thought it was a Vermilion Flycatcher. I’d been given a Peterson’s bird guide when I was in high school, I still had it. I went back and looked at it, and indeed it was a vermilion flycatcher. They had an adult education class in Santa Barbara for intermediate birding, and that’s when we really expanded our horizons.
How many birds are on your life list?
Any goals set?
I’d like to see 700. But it’s getting harder and harder. I know what birds I haven’t seen, the ones that I’ve missed are hard to come by. What you have to remember in birding is that there are no guarantees.