If you want to see a burrowing owl you gotta get up early. That was one of the unusual suspects on our list which also included bell’s sparrow, loggerhead shrike, and a greater roadrunner. Out of the entire Monterey peninsula and the surrounding area, those particular birds can be reliably found only on the Fort Ord National Monument, and our assigned circle of 15 mile wide diameter falls right in the middle of the former Army base. Although this was only my second time participating in the Christmas Bird Count, the 2017/2018 count was in its 118th rendition. The very first CBC took place on Christmas Day in year 1900 across 25 different cities, and Pacific Grove in Monterey County, California, was among them. It is the longest running citizen science project producing a massive amount of data which plays a large role in bird conservation across the globe.
But history, big data, and policy aside, it is also a lot of fun! Especially when you do it in a group of passionate naturalists. I met my colleagues Shawn and Patrick at the entrance to Fort Ord National Monument at 5:30 am and we drove off into the dark oak woodland. Right off the bat, a barn owl flew across the road. Patrick whipped out his phone and started logging our sightings using eBird.
Conducting CBC is not quite like tracking; covering an area of 177 square miles within a single day involves a lot of driving and birding from inside of the car. But it does require good familiarity with the area and knowledge of the birds’ life histories. Some, like oak titmice, prefer oak woodland habitat, loggerhead shrikes like young chaparral, whereas burrowing owls are found primarily in grasslands where they can utilize the burrows of ground squirrels and badgers. We were on our way to the grasslands. Driving slowly on the gravel roads we stopped every few hundred feet and squinted our eyes to detect any movement as far as the headlights would reach. We saw a shape resembling a small owl fly by the side of the road but neither of us was confident that was a burrowing owl. So we drove down the hill and back up again until we got a second look. By the time we did, the blue gray colors of dawn adorned the skyline, and this time we didn’t have any doubts the silhouette of small chunky bird we saw in the distance belonged to a burrowing owl. One down, three more to go.
As we drove up the ridgeline, then down to the valley below and back up again, our diurnal friends were starting to pop up. Red tailed and red shouldered hawks were lazily adorning oak trees and fence posts waiting for either breakfast or the sun, possibly both. These big hawks of genus Buteo utilize thermals of warm air to soar on their broad wings and conserve energy. White tailed kites and northern harriers occasionally made their appearances, but they too seemed sluggish and unwilling to spend much energy. Perhaps they didn’t have their coffee yet.
Other animals were in the process of waking up as well. At the edge of the chaparral we noticed two bobcats. Like Egyptian sphinx, they appeared poised and pensive, but when we stopped to get a better look they scurried away. Further up the road another bobcat was greeting the sun as its rays crept up the grassy slope.
By midmorning we saw several species of raptors, passerines, corvids and a pair of hooded mergansers, all within the grassland and oak savannah areas in the southeastern part of the monument. But a large portion of the former Fort Ord is covered by central maritime chaparral; a plant community dominated by woody shrubs like chamise and manzanita. Some manzanitas may grow up to 15 feet high and form an intertwined mass of thicket so dense it is almost impenetrable. For over two decades the US Army has been prescribed burning and masticating selected areas on former Fort Ord to facilitate the removal of unexploded ordnance left behind during soldier training exercises dating back as far as WWI era. When mature chaparral areas are burned or cut it allows for annual, herbaceous plants and other smaller subshrub species to spring up in the cleared areas. Overtime, the slow growing shrubs like manzanitas, ceanothus, and chamise begin to outgrow and dominate the smaller species, which eventually senesce. This is called succession. But before the smaller species get outcompeted, they set their seed which accumulates under canopies of their competitors and await another opportunity to spring up. When these areas open up, such as after a fire, the dormant seeds germinate and the cycle repeats again. A variety of areas in different stages of succession support a greater diversity of plant and animal life than a uniform stand of mature chaparral. It is one of the Army’s goals to conduct vegetation removal activities in such a way as to create a mosaic of different age classes of maritime chaparral plant community.
Early succession species like deerweed, horkelia, and rush rose attract a long list of pollinators, birds, and small mammals. Those in turn are eaten by a variety of predators from gopher snakes and coyotes, to northern harriers, bell’s sparrows, loggerhead shrikes, and roadrunners. Those last three of course were still on our most wanted lists, so we headed to the areas that have been burned a few years prior.
Bell’s sparrows prefer young chaparral and we found several hanging out on two to three foot tall shaggy bark manzanitas. They feed on variety of seeds and insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, and caterpillars. Their varied diet is probably the reason why these birds are uncommonly seen in the mature chaparral plant community which has a lower diversity of plants and animals than recently burned areas.
On our way we also saw a couple of loggerheads shrikes. These small carnivorous songbirds have a veracious appetite for insects and small mammals, but will also consume birds and herps. Capable of killing and carrying prey its own body mass, they impale it on sharp objects like thorns, barbed wire, or burnt skeletons of manzanita.
Perhaps the most iconic bird on our list was a greater roadrunner. We noticed one cross the road we were driving on. When it became aware of our presence it leaned forward, spread its wings out to the sides and sprinted toward thickets before I could get a clear shot with my camara. As the name suggests, these birds spend most of their time running on the ground in open areas and flushing out their prey. They are not picky eaters and they’ve evolved some peculiar behaviors that allow them to eat prey that matches their size. They smash their pray against rocks to break up their bones and make them easier to swallow. They will also kill rattlesnakes, often in pairs, one roadraunner distracting it while the other pins its head and delivers several deadly blows to the head. If a snake is too long to swallow all at once they will let a part of it hang out of its beak, and swallow a little bit at a time as the snake digests. Fort Ord National Monument is the northern limit of their range along the Pacific coast, so it’s always a special treat to see one of these unique birds.
Of course, we’ve had plenty of other animal sightings besides birds during the count. While a doe watched us carefully from under an oak tree as we drove by, a tiny ear flick of a yearling betrayed its presence right by her side. Among the grasslands a hunting coyote raced us to cross the road before us. Not much further, three coyotes loped and bounced among the thickets of chaparral stopping every so often to look over their shoulder as we drove by. Their coats looked quite healthy, likely sign that their prey has been abundant. Although we did not see any badgers, we did find a badger burrow. Abandoned by its maker some time ago, it now served as a safe refuge to a western fence lizard and probably a number of other critters.
In a span of eight hours we saw or heard 45 species of birds, plus three bobcats, two deer, four coyotes, and one badger burrow. It amazes me that in its 118th year there have been 1697 completed Christmas Bird Counts of nearly 39 million birds across the globe. All conducted by passionate volunteers like you and me and resulting in invaluable data of long term population trends of hundreds of bird species. And it also continues to amaze me how these 15000 plus acres of former Fort Ord that supported thousands of troops shooting and blowing stuff up for over 70 years continue to support such a rich diversity of plant and animal life. Establishment of conservation areas in the form of Fort Ord National Monument, Fort Ord Dunes State Park, UC Nature Reserve, along with preserved county areas ensures long term conservation of this unique habitat and its wild denizens. And it provides an opportunity for us all to see, celebrate, and interact with them. So what are you doing next Christmas season?