birders flock to SBC

It's a New Year's tradition that I wholeheartedly embrace:  the annual National Audubon Society Pinnacles area Christmas Bird Count.

Each year for more than a century, avid and not-so-avid birders have volunteered to attempt to count all the birds in regions across North America, from Key West to Prudhoe Bay.  Each "count circle" is an area that's deemed significant for some reason, 15 miles in diameter.  Volunteers begin before dawn — owls, you know — and go through the day, tallying their finds on clipboards before assembling to compile data at a "countdown dinner."

For many of you, a bird count conjures up images of dowdy spinsters dressed in funny clothes, exclaiming over "Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers."  And you might be partially right.

But the truth is that birding attracts people of all ages, genders and stripes.  The more significant truth is that the counts replaced an earlier New Year's tradition that called for going afield to shoot anything with wings.  Moreover, the counts over time result in some very significant scientific data relating to population trends and the health of bird species across the continent.

A bird count involves significant commitment from the count compiler, who functions as the field marshall/cheerleader for the effort.  Thus, the old Hollister count has gone the way of the Dodo.  But there remain two counts in San Benito County: Panoche Valley (a nationally known destination among birders) and Pinnacles National Monument.  The Pinnacles count was on Sunday, Dec. 30.

As is our practice, we participated.  We stationed ourselves near the Willow Creek Corrals, off Highway 25 north of Pinnacles, well before sunup.  Three Great-horned Owls called from the oaks.

It was cold, to be sure, and the day's temperatures never nicked 50 degrees, but it was also glorious to be out on a winter's morning.  A nearly full moon was setting, lighting up scattered clouds.  As the eastern sky brightened, the first songbirds began calling tentatively from the brush.

Throughout the day, we stopped along Airline Highway and Willow Creek Road — our assigned route — to listen, watch and jot notes.  We enjoyed a picnic at Jefferson School, where we watched as a Ferruginous Hawk flew into the count area.  Two Golden Eagles revealed themselves, along with a host of other raptors.

At the count dinner at the Best of Times Cafe in downtown Hollister, we learned that more than 100 species had been logged.  Our tally for the day was 46 species.

Windburned and tired, many of the group were still clad in muddy boots and parkas as dinner was served.  There were stories swapped and a few boasts made.  Mostly, people enjoyed the warmth of shared company.

It's said that more than 70 million Americans call themselves birders, from those who travel the world, binoculars in hand, with a single-minded focus, to those who hang a feeder outside the kitchen window.  The counts attract those from across the spectrum.  Those without the confidence to separate a Ruby-crowned Kinglet from a Hutton's Vireo come to record sightings, and to learn more.  The most dedicated plunge into the endeavor with the zeal of commandos on a mission.

The counts take place in every state, and always close to where people live, from mid-December until the first week of January.  Because it brings people together, because it collects important information, and because it brings us outside and away from the holiday table at a time when we need it most, it's a tradition that deserves to be observed in more families.

I can't think of a better way to embrace San Benito County than the Pinnacles Christmas Count.