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Focus: A Bird-A-Thon Youth Team

A Bird-A-Thon Youth Team

Rich Stallcup

The Drakes Beach Sanderling team stops at outer Point Reyes midway through their 2011 Bird-A-Thon count. Long-time team member Catherine Berner (see box below) is second from right. Photo by Cheryl Ishida.
“O.K. kids, let’s gather around this Coleman lantern as our base camp. I know it’s kind of strange to be out here in the woods before daybreak with people we don’t know very well, but we are a team and we have a mission. We are the Drakes Beach Sanderlings. My name is Rich and that’s Ellen. Along with these other adults, we are here to guide and assure that everyone is engaged and has a good time.”

Suddenly in the total darkness, from the Douglas firs above, a Northern Spotted Owl blows its four-note location call, and we are all silent in awe and wonder. Soon a small voice among us restores reality... “That’s number one!”

So begins the Leica Youth Team’s PRBO Bird-A-Thon, held on a day in late September or early October, year after year, since 1998. Some of the earlier “Sanderlings” have long since fledged.

Following the lantern, we walk past dark Five Brooks pond and farther into the black forest for the beginning of the dawn chorus. A distant piping Saw-whet Owl causes worthy excitement, and a pair of more expected Great Horned Owls chant their duet.

At a deep canyon overlook, we wait as the first blue light of dawn awakens diurnal wildlife. “Chup”—Hermit Thrush. “Zee zee zee zee”—Golden-crowned Kinglet. “Tic-tic”—Pacific Wren. “Pip pip pip pip pip”—what the heck was that? Sonoma Chipmunk! Oops. “Veeeerrr”—Varied Thrush.

On and on, birds join the chorus to announce their presence. The team (some of whose members have done this many times: see the box below) handle most of the identifications. The counselors are here for back-up.

After birding the pond and its riparian edges, the group has a list standing at 52—and it is just after sunrise. During the next ten hours we will bird Bolinas Lagoon, Stinson Beach, and outer Point Reyes, then head inland across Marin County to Stafford Lake, the Rush Creek wetlands, Bahia, and the Las Gallinas sewer ponds. Our total Bird-A-Thon list will be between 135 and 155 species, and while the number does matter, there is much more.

We will all have learned a lot—about natural history, how to carefully identify and record birds, and about team play. We will have spent time and effort to raise funding so that PRBO scientists can study birds and habitats, allowing land managers to make wise decisions. Birding to save birds—what a concept.

Where do these youngsters come from, and why aren’t they doing something else?

Some kids are birders from babyhood—it’s a genetic anomaly. Others latch onto birding from the slightest positive influence, like seeing someone who is “cool” love birds. And others are folded in by osmosis, through Girl or Boy Scouts, junior Audubon, school projects, or the like.

However they come to ornithology (and to PRBO, through our Bird-A-Thon), many of these young birders will be tomorrow’s professionals—working to protect birds and avian habitats.