The Christmas Bird Count has been an annual tradition for the past 115 years, since 1900, taking place of the annual “side hunt” that men would go on each year to hunt as many birds as possible. This is my third year participating in the event, last year I counted with Dan Cooper at Ballona Wetlands, and the year prior at Sepulveda Basin with Kris Ohlenkamp. This year I counted at Limekiln Canyon Park with Rose Leibowitz, President of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society and three other participants.
Christmas Bird Counts are are officially organized through the National Audubon Society and conducted by local chapters or groups that have signed up. Each count, led by a compiler, covers a 15-mile diameter circle of area, so it is too large of an area for a single person to handle. Since the circles are so large, several groups coordinate to bird in different areas and then all combine their lists together for the official count. The San Fernando Valley Audubon coordinated the circle that encompassed the entire valley.
I decided to participate in a count at an area that I’ve never birded in before, so Limekiln Canyon was a perfect match; a bonus being that it was being led by my new friend, Rose. I was slightly tempted to count again at Sepulveda Basin solely for the fact that a rare bird was seen there recently…a Bald Eagle. Temptation aside, getting up for this event was difficult since my company holiday party was the night prior, but birds rest for no one! An hour and a half of sleep will have to do!
The count began below the 118 freeway in San Fernando Valley and was to end at Limekiln Canyon Park. I met up with Rose, Mary Ellen, Lindsay, and Helene at 8:00AM on Chatsworth Street south of Limekiln and birded for a few minutes in a small patch of woods. Our first bird of the day was the Lesser Goldfinch; we spotted several of them as they flew into a tall tree. There weren’t many birds visible in this initial area, so we quickly moved onto the main attraction, Limekiln Canyon Park.
I immediately had luck the moment I opened my car door. Right next to the sidewalk was a large bush full of bright red berries that had a flock of 20 American Bushtits madly hopping around in it. Everyone met at the entrance to the nature park and we made our way down the trail. Limekiln Canyon is a very wooded area with lots of shade, outdoor exercise equipment and a creek that runs through it. So this provided a number of interesting sites as we made our way through the park.
Surprisingly, the birds that made their presence the most known during the count were the numerous hummingbirds. Anna’s Hummingbirds were seen buzzing around almost constantly doing their displaying and looking to pair off. As we crossed the small creek, seen in the photo above, we spotted two hummingbirds land in shallow water and start bathing themselves in it! This was pretty magical to see and something that none of us had witnessed before.
As we continued along the main path, we spotted a lot of familiar faces foraging on the ground. Dark-eyed Juncos, California Towhees, and Hermit Thrushes could be seen digging through the dirt and brush. Two small groups of Lark Sparrows were mixed in with a few Yellow-rumped Warblers that were also forgaging for food. This was notable to me since, up until now, I had only seen those warblers in trees and bushes. Lark Sparrows are a fairly new bird to me, I got my first good look at one two weeks ago at Bird Fest. These sparrows have very striking coloring and striping on their faces and were a nice sight to behold.
Finding birds to add to our Christmas tally is easy, but sometimes identifying them is the challenging part. When birds are far away, backlit, or can only be heard, this is where the group comes together to form a consensus on an ID. Everyone was armed with binoculars and me also with a telephoto camera lens so we were well prepared for the task. Our first tricky ID came when we spotted two large birds in a tree hundreds of feet away. From their silhouette we could deduce that they were raptors (birds of prey). We could see they were generally brown with tan bellies and we stared at them for a while trying to see the color on the tail. Our group came to an agreement that they were Red-tailed Hawks. My camera confirmed this when were closer since we were able to see the tell-tale belly band that is characteristic to the species.
A few Black Phoebe and Say’s Phoebe appeared periodically as we continued through the park heading up the inclined path. Shortly after this, we saw a bird zoom overhead, flapping quickly you could see the underside of its wings were red. Rose quickly ID’d the bird as a Northern Flicker.
Here is a nice photo of a Black Phoebe that was watching us walk by.
The bird count was a great success this year. It brought an opportunity for me to become better acquainted with the field markings of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and the privilege of seeing those bathing hummingbirds. Overall, the San Fernando Valley Audubon Christmas Bird Count recorded 112 species in the ten areas observed in the 15-mile circle. Our count at Limekiln Canyon Park included 27 species of birds during the 3 1/2 hours we were there.
Have you participated in a Christmas Bird Count before? If so, tell us about your experience in the comments!