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The Birding Bowl

Santa Barbara Shines in the Annual Christmas Bird Count


New York has the Yankees, Green Bay has the Packers, L.A. has the Lakers, Pasadena has the Rose Bowl, Augusta has the Masters, Daytona Beach has Speed Week-each of those sporting teams and events elevating the host cities to national prominence.

I found out last weekend that Santa Barbara (including Goleta) has earned a sterling reputation among all U.S. cities and towns for its accomplishments in an annual sporting enterprise that dates back to 1900. It is a one-day event in which participants demonstrate knowledge, skill, passion, and perseverance. The closest parallel in mainstream sports may be something like the NFL Draft or college recruiting-it involves scouting, recognition, and roster-building.

It is the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. It takes place in hundreds of locations around the country. Each locale is circumscribed by a circle 15 miles in diameter. Every species of wild bird seen within that circle on a selected day (between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5) is counted. Santa Barbara’s Audubon chapter held its count last Saturday (Jan. 2) in an area extending from Ellwood to Montecito and from the north side of San Marcos Pass to four miles offshore.

Starting in the predawn hours, more than 200 avid birdwatchers fanned out in the canyons, sloughs, farms, golf courses, beaches, and open sea-some of them focused on backyard feeders-and dutifully recorded their sightings. At the end of the day, they assembled at the Museum of Natural History and tallied the results.

Anybody see a Bullock’s Oriole?” asked Joan Lentz, the chief compiler.

A female on a golf course,” said a veteran birder.

That sounds exciting.”

When the survey was completed, there were 214 species counted. Lentz later reported that two more rare sightings were verified-a Rufous Hummingbird and a Northern Rough-winged Swallow-bringing the total to 216.

That number is likely to stack up as one of the nation’s best. “Last year, we had 209, and that was third in the country after two nefarious Texas counts,” Lentz said. She explained that Texans drew two circles in bird-rich areas on the Gulf of Mexico-Mad Island Marsh and the Guadalupe River Delta-that are remote from human settlements. “They are not true communities like we are,” she said. There is another strong Texas count in the town of Freeport. “We used to have a friendly rivalry with them,” Lentz said, but “those other two Texas sites get such high numbers I don’t even count them.” Sounds like some schools that seek high rankings by running up the scores against weak opponents.

Needless to say, Santa Barbara is a paradise for birders. “We’ve got mountains, lakes, and the ocean,” said Ron Hirst, an accountant who has pursued the hobby for 20 years. “We’re in the flyway from Alaska down to South America.” It takes experience to differentiate the various species, he said. “To a beginner, there are a lot of BBB’s-basic brown birds,” Hirst said. “You need sharp eyes, good binoculars, and a good book.” The local record for the Christmas Bird Count is 224 species, set in 2006.

It’s a team effort,” Hirst said. The humble House Finch counts as much as a Great Blue Heron. The competitive aspect of the count is fun, Lentz added, but it can get out of hand. “There’s a certain amount of ego involved in spotting good birds,” she said. But if anybody makes a false report and is exposed, they will never outlive the disgrace. “It’s like your virginity-you lose it, and it’s gone,” Lentz said.

My own weekend of birding was a disappointment. I had the Oregon Ducks winning the Rose Bowl game.

GAMES OF THE WEEK: The 46th annual Santa Barbara Invitational men’s volleyball tournament at UCSB offers an early look at several teams that will be vying for the 2010 NCAA championship. Second-round matches are tonight (Thu., Jan. 7). The championship match will be at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at Robertson Gym. : The Gaucho men’s basketball team hosts UC Davis at 8 p.m. on Friday in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPNU. : There will be fast times in UCSB’s Campus Pool on Saturday when USC’s Trojans swim against the Gaucho men and women, starting at noon. : Westmont College, ranked in both NAIA basketball polls, will be home on Saturday against The Master’s, the women’s game at 5:30 p.m., the men’s to follow. : UCSB will be back in action at the Thunderdome on Sunday (3pm) against the Pacific Tigers.

For more sports, including a weekly highlight schedule, see independent.com/sports.



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