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Tag: Point Counts

Field Note from Whiskeytown National Recreation Area by Jim DeStaebler, Point Count Program Field Technician

I’m at the last point count station of the day, near the saddle of a ridge, at the top of a draw. The mature mixed conifer-oak forest is humid and dark after a late spring rain. And it’s quiet, in contrast to the dry live oak and manzanita chaparral nearby. As I start the count, I hear the cacophony of bird song below me, of birds I passed and already counted on the way up the ridge. Two Black-headed Grosbeak males singing full volume, interrupting each other. And another to the west a few hundred meters. The lilting mutter song of a Western Tanager compliments them, and a very distant American Robin adds a thrushy vibrato background. And what, more than hormones, has agitated the grosbeaks, are two Northern Pygmy-Owls, their long carrying toots, echoing back and forth across the ravine. These small and ravenous predators are something feared by songbirds. A Mountain Quail’s “quark” song begins to match the tempo of the owls’. A clan of Steller’s Jays, who’ve been keeping watch on the owls, give “took-took” contact calls, in tempo and tone matching the Pygmys’ “poot”.

Sonic chaos? Not quite. This is orderly avian communication during the busiest time of year. Reproduction is the foremost goal of every bird here, and singing males and territorial birds represent a generation being produced. The number of breeding adults is an accurate measure of an avian population’s health and I’m here to take that measurement. Point counts, in this case five minutes long with a distance to bird estimate, are an ideal standardized way to collect data. Arranged in transects of 12 permanent points through contiguous habitat and combined with vegetation data collected with birds’ use in mind, point count data can give a quick view of a location’s avifauna or a long term record of population trends.

Now a minute into the count, finally a new bird; the thin airy “seep” of a Brown Creeper nearby. Maybe the old trees flaking bark is an attractive feature. And another following it, possibly a dependent juvenile. A faint growl-ish call. Hmm. A Red-breasted Sapsucker at a nest? Too quiet, and I’ve heard nothing else to substantiate that. I’ll come back to it. A sibilant rising warbler song. It’s almost certainly one in the Black-throated Gray’s repertoire, though the density of Douglas Firs would suggest a Hermit Warbler, and only four days ago a wave of migrating Townsend’s Warblers flooded the canopy. Two Oregon Juncos twitter, a pair feeding together. And just before the timer goes off, a Cassin’s Vireo’s leisurely one sided conversation starts. A-ha … the faint growler revealed! Maybe the pair is nesting in the ancient Black Oaks, their one-meter diameter trunks reaching up through the thick conifers.

I was here three years ago, same route, close to the same date, and my memory is that Cassin’s Vireos were abundant, but this year the resident Hutton’s Vireos are singing at most points. Are the Cassin’s here but not singing? Did the Hutton’s population explode? Do they avoid singing at the same time to avoid sonic competition? Has the late rain altered the situation? Or is it the warm April different? Earlier flowering and leafing out of plants could mean earlier insect hatches, which would affect crucial food sources for nesting birds. Invertebrates are the backbone of the nestling season (heh!). Or rain and cold late in May could stop migrants short of their usual territories. On top of this, Whiskeytown NRA is being comprehensively managed with prescribed fire, and effects from this will become evident over time as birds respond to changing habitats.

Fortunately, to reduce these uncertainties, this project’s design calls for an astounding 10 surveys over 30 years. This glowing example of true long-term monitoring, reflecting perseverance and insight will help illuminate patterns in a variable and changing natural world.

Faces in the Dark – a field day tale

Faces in the Dark by Claudia Strijek

I stood outside the barbed-wire fence that guarded the historical barn from vandals, camera and binoculars in hand. The fence was also protecting a family of barn owls. I had seen one of the adults fly into the upper loft through an opening on the west side the barn the night before. Just seconds after the adult disappeared behind the warped, weathered wood, owlet cries poured into the night air—feeding time! I wanted a closer look at the owls.

With my binoculars I searched the interior of the barn. The evening sun pierced through large gaps in the siding creating beams of dusty light but this did nothing to illuminate the shadowy recesses of the structure. But my eyes adjusted to the dim light nonetheless. As I looked about the lower loft my eye caught sight of large wing. My mind immediately registered something was terribly wrong, for the wing was upside down and splayed open. One of the young had recently died and its body hung between some boards. Then out of the shadows a shape moved slightly. An owlet was perched on the edge of a horse stall. It slowly lifted its head using its wings to balance itself but the motion was slow, deliberate and possibly painful. Its emaciated body told me this youngster was not getting fed with the others and would likely die soon as well.

But there had to be a couple other owlets that were healthy and had made all that racket the night before. So I moved to another spot where I could see into the upper loft. The right corner was empty. On the left side however, stood a well-made owl hut complete with a pitched roof and large round opening. Perched in front were the two adult barn owls.

Their heart-shaped faces held my gaze not moving an inch. The larger female sat just in front of the male guarding her family. I took in the details of their feather patterns. The white faces were trimmed in dark grey-brown. Between widely-spread dark eyes was an elongated nose bridge that ended with a blond-colored hooked beak. There were grey and brown spots peppered around their throats, breast and underside which merged into rusty-brown wings and backs. This reversed pattern was quite beautiful.

I stood there for several more minutes, taking photos and admiring the patterned plumage of the adults but the young remained hidden and silent. I left the family to their restful state and looked forward to hearing their night activity again that evening.


Claudia Strijek is a KBO Field Technician conducting point counts in southern Oregon and northern California. Click here to visit her blog for more of her writings and photography.

The Old Ones – a field day tale

The Old Ones
By Claudia Strijek

The old ones were here when the erupting earth spewed forth a fire river.  They saw the red and orange molten rock fill the valley and saw huge plumes of smoke. They stared at the changing landscape for too long and the red burned into their eyes. So now we all have red eyes to remind us of a time that passed but may come again.

This is my take on a Native American tale I heard not long ago. After being in Lava Beds National Monument for two weeks walking over all that cooled lava flow, I could
not help but think of this common bird with its red eye.


Claudia Strijek is a KBO Field Technician conducting point counts in southern Oregon and northern California. Click here to visit her blog for more of her writings and photography.

Editor’s note—the Spotted Towhee’s iris color changes with age. Upon hatching, the young have dull grayish-brown eyes. Over its first winter the eye color progresses from brownish hues to an orangey-red to red. It is the older individuals that have deep red eyes.