A Center for Lifelong Learning birding class groups around spotter scopes to get a better look at a red-shouldered hawk at Ellwood Mesa.

Birders, as committed bird-watchers call themselves, are a hardy lot. They have to be since their feathered targets in this area range from the seashore to the mountains, with many types of terrain in-between.

Sturdy footwear comes in handy, as does a powerful pair of binoculars. Some birds, like owls, are best observed at night, so night-vision equipment may help. However, great patience, persistence, a sense of humor and knowledge of bird plumage and habitats are birder traits at least as important as their tools.

Vic Cox

At no time is their dedication more evident than during the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Timed to coincide with similar counts throughout the Western Hemisphere, this series of 24-hour days to tally birds in Santa Barbara County begins December 15 in the Lompoc–La Purisima zone. The counts are held, fair weather or foul, over a two-week stretch ending this year on January 4 in the Santa Barbara–Goleta section.

Under the aegis of local CBC leaders, troops of volunteers are dispatched to specific areas within a roughly 15-mile-diameter geographical circle. Their mission: to identify species and count all individual birds spotted. A total of five circles, divided into predetermined areas overseen by experienced birders, encompass major avian habitats in the North and South County.

“We cover a pretty large, diverse area,” says count compiler Rebecca Coulter, describing a swath of ocean and land running from Montecito to Goleta. For this circle, she, Joan Murdoch, and Jared Dawson select area leaders and dispatch volunteers to where they are needed. Once field data are in, they compile annual results for the National Audubon Society as well as the Santa Barbara chapter.

Last year’s count reported more than 41,800 individual birds from 213 species in this circle alone, securing a second place in California’s CBC and a third place nationally. Locally, organizers were most pleased by the 270 participants in the count, 25 percent more than the previous year and, they trumpeted on the chapter website, “an all-time record.”

With two major lagoon sloughs, several streams, Lake Los Carneros, and hundreds of acres of wetlands and open space with plentiful plant life, the Goleta Valley attracts resident and visiting birds alike. It is a favored bird-watching area the year round, but especially during the Christmas count.

“Goleta has always had the best birding during the CBC,” says Joan Easton Lentz, who served as the Audubon chapter’s chief compiler for more than a dozen years. The teacher and veteran birder estimates that 75 percent of her Center for Lifelong Learning (continuing education) birding classes “are conducted in Goleta.” She favors the Ellwood Mesa and Devereux Slough areas because of visual access to shore birds as well as common land birds, though she grants that the Goleta Slough provides a richer food source.

On a recent walk along the Ellwood bluffs her class witnessed unusual behavior when a great blue heron speared a gopher and carried it down to the beach to dip it repeatedly in the surf. Some students packed powerful spotting scopes, which they share on field trips, giving everyone a clear view of the event.

No one, including the teacher, could definitively explain the heron’s behavior. That did not halt speculation. One wag suggested that the tall bird liked his gopher meat salted.

The author of three books on birds and, most recently, an ecosystem overview titled A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region, Lentz flatly declares she “loves Goleta” for its multiple birding opportunities. “You never know what you’re going to see. The beaches from Haskell’s (eastward) to Goleta Beach have amazing variety,” she says, but the coastline from Coal Oil Point to More Mesa also boasts “good forage.”

Noting that even migrating, off-course birds may drop in for berries or a few sips of nectar, Lentz extols the variety of food sources in the area. “Goletans may not realize what they’ve got,” she opines.

For more details on the CBC and other birding activities in the general area, see the Santa Barbara Audubon Society chapter’s website.


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