The Learning Curve
My first season as a participant in the San Diego County Bird Atlas Project has been a marvelous experience. I felt the thrill of discovery and the agony of total confusion (to paraphrase). I have, however, prepared myself for a more productive and efficient winter phase of the project and am eagerly looking forward to the next breeding season. The first difference between the type of casual birding that I usually do and the observations needed to complete the breeding survey is the need to concentrate on activity rather than on field marks. In my first several trips to my "square" I came home with a bird list but little else. I had identified the birds but had not concentrated on their behavior enough to determine if they were, in fact, engaged in some phase of the breeding cycle at the time of my observation. I was simply too distracted by a new call or the presence of a different species to focus on behavior. One tool that helped me overcome this problem is a "micro-cassette" tape recorder. I now just talk into the little machine in my shirt pocket rather than write notes in my note pad. This marvel of technology is not very expensive, and transcribing your notes in the comfort of your kitchen table with a hot cup of coffee is very easy. I keep my notebook handy, too, in case I want to diagram a location or make a sketch. (My sketches are more like memory aids than anything artistic, but the serve to make the final record more complete.) A great help in keeping the project organized is very low-tech -- just a three-ring zippered notebook with pockets in the front and back. I use plastic three-ring covers to keep my map, dashboard sign, letter from a landowner giving me permission to enter his property, Cleveland National Forest Pass, and a list of contacts I might need in case of emergency or if I find something really spectacular. The pockets in the front and back hold my daily field forms, incidental-observations forms and the instruction handbook. Two very worthwhile investments that I made were a U.S. Geological Survey 7.5-minute-series map of the area of my square and a DeLorme topographic atlas of southern California. The DeLorme shows roads, trails, and features not on the typical road map. I chose a square (E13, Nate Harrison Grade) that I had never even visited in an effort to expand my knowledge of both the geography and the natural history of the county and needed lots of research to even find the boundaries of my square. My enjoyment of the project has been greatly enhanced by the purchase of a field guide to the trees, shrubs, and wildflowers of the area. Being botanically challenged, I needed help in making my notes on location of the breeding activity. At the conclusion of the project, I will probably look back and say how easy it was to accomplish, but for now, I'm still on the steep part of the learning curve.
Stepping Back in Time
As I completed Bird Atlas trips along the Santa Margarita River this spring and summer, I felt as though the calendar should 1897, not 1997. Many of the birds I recorded were once much more numerous and widespread in coastal San Diego County. Yellow Warblers, for example, outnumbered all other riparian forest birds. The incredible vocalizations of the Yellow-breasted Chats were some of the more familiar bird sounds. I was as likely to see Downy Woodpeckers as Nuttall's. Warbling Vireos and Western Wood Pewees inhabited nearly every cottonwood grove. Bell's Vireos sang from the willow thickets that were reclaiming recently exposed sandbars. I especially enjoyed hearing the flute-like phrases of several Swainson's Thrushes countersinging from the densest portions of the woodlands. Are there any other rivers in the county where we can "step back in time?"