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The Great Backyard Bird Count and Other Bird Stories

By Joan Bergsund, Master Gardener

We assume that many passionate gardeners are also birdwatchers.

Can you identify most of the birds that visit your garden? Do you set out feeders and birdhouses? Do you occasionally trek over hill and dale with other birders, identifying species on the wing, or in the trees and shrubs? Do you carry your bird identification books and field glasses in your glove-box…always at the ready? The picture in the Union Democrat last month that showed a tree full of migrating turkey vultures reminds us that winter is coming. Birds are busy and on the move. You may observe flocks of them feeding on the ground and then they suddenly wheel into the sky and are gone.

Acorn woodpeckers are the noisiest birds in my garden. During the summer months as they settle down at dusk they seem to say “good night” to one another, as their squawking gets quieter with longer intervals in-between. They wake up the same way, as the early risers start the daily chatter. This fall they have been preparing for the winter ahead, adding to their acorn supplies. I see more quail this year than ever before, and the young seem to have survived the usual “thinning” process. Several birdhouses, made specifically to entice bluebirds, are filled to the brim with acorns; the squirrels are using them for storage. I´ve emptied them only to see them fill up within a couple of days. The bluebirds won´t stand a chance around here. Once a great horned owl perched atop one…and I watched for 10 minutes while he preened, swiveled his head from side to side, casing the neighborhood. What a thrill.

Last year I discovered the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). This is a joint program of the Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, now in its 10th year. Over one weekend in February I watched, identified and counted or estimated the numbers of birds I observed in my own back yard for two days. There were nine species I could identify for a total of about 55 total birds. I submitted this data on line to Cornell where information gathered from over 60,000 other backyard bird watchers was compiled. It was almost effortless on my part, but as a part of a nationwide effort I was contributing useful data. They sent me an official print-out of my participation.

Looking ahead, with our ability to be out in the garden limited by winter weather, mark your calendar for February 16 – 19, 2007 for the next backyard bird count. Just take note of the birds you can identify and estimate the numbers. You don´t have to leave your home to participate. Send in your species and numbers by logging on to www.birdsource.org/gbbc where results are tabulated by the Cornell Lab. At the very least, check out the website; you´ll learn about this joint project and other interesting activities all designed to protect and promote our winged feathered friends.

As we gaze about the landscape at this time of year—hillsides golden, leaves turning color as we head for winter—the following quote from the late Wallace Stegner seems appropriate. Famed author of western genre and a keen observer of nature, he says…

“Aridity, more than anything else, gives the western landscape its character. It is aridity that gives the air its special dry clarity; aridity that puts brilliance in the light and polishes and enlarges the stars; aridity that leads grasses to evolve as bunches rather than as turf, aridity that exposes the pigmentation of the earth and limits, almost eliminates, the color of chlorophyll… To eyes trained on universal chlorophyll, gold or brown hills may look repulsive. Sagebrush is an acquired taste, as are raw earth and alkali flats…You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns…” Think about natural, western landscape ways of gardening that will help increase the bird population in your area.

Book signings and sales of the Master Gardener Book, “Sharing the Knowledge, Gardening in the Mother Lode,” will take place on Saturday, December 2nd at the Mountain Laurel Florist and Garden Shop in Tuolumne from 11:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. Mountain Laurel Florist is located at 18398 Tuolumne Road in Tuolumne Square.

Book signings and sales will also be held at The Junction Shopping Center in front of the Mountain Bookshop on Saturday, Dec. 9th and Sunday, Dec. 10th from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p. m. This book is loaded with information on how to garden in the unique conditions of the Mother Lode, including suggestions for attracting birds and butterflies to your yard. Stop by for a signed copy to give as a wonderful Christmas Gift to a Mother Lode gardener or pick one up at Columbia Nursery.

See you in the garden.

Master Gardener Joan Bergsund continues to observe birds and is getting over the color green. Watching the millions of leaves fall from the many Black Oaks on her property she is practicing “leaving the leaves” where they fall, and anticipates the mulch they will become in the future.