Maggie Sherriffs was a tad nervous. The four-year Santa Barbara Audubon Society member had never before led a birding group at Goleta’s Lake Los Carneros. On top of that she was eight months pregnant. Nonetheless she joined a dozen other adult guides at Stow House last month for the chapter’s first-ever “Winter Bird Count 4 Kids.”
Six or seven small groups of youngsters between the ages of 8 and 16 formed around the volunteer guides recruited by event organizer Andy Lanes. In each group one person was given a clipboard and told to track all the bird species observed. On this bright, cloudless Saturday, Maggie had charge of four boys.
“They were all cousins, accompanied by their granddad, Joe, so that helped ease me [into the guide role],” she noted later. A teen-aged boy and his parents also joined her band as they traced a web of trails toward the lake.
Before starting their trek, a flock of ring-necked doves drew the youngsters’ attention when they noisily alighted in trees near Stow House. Someone else pointed at the distant top of another tree and asked the most frequently heard question of the day: “What bird is that?”
It turned out to be an American kestrel, or sparrow hawk, as confirmed by several guides with spotting scopes. While Andy and his helpers passed out extra binoculars at the free event, the kids often needed the powerful scopes to identify the birds their guides were hearing and describing. Sharing the scopes was widespread, both at Stow House and on the trails.
Besides binoculars, Maggie carried an iPhone loaded with common birdcalls she expected to hear. As her boisterous band crossed a wooden footbridge to the far side of the lake — it had recently risen after the area’s first decent rain in more than a year — they briefly joined another group to add a few ducks to their tallies.
Standing at the lake edge a single, white mute swan cautiously glided over to stare at them expectantly. Apparently, it associated people with fast food. This time it swam away disappointed.
Maggie’s recorded songs were helpful in stimulating wild birds’ responses and to enable her group to pick out individual calls. They also entertained the boys. After hearing a sparrow’s chatter, one of the younger boys commented, “That sounded like an angry bird.” Then he grinned and added, “Maybe a bunch of Angry Birds,” playing on the name of one of last year’s most popular computer games.
Moving on, Maggie quizzed her group, “What kind of bird are we hearing behind us?”
“A yellow something … ” says a boy.
“Yes, a yellow-tailed warbler,” she responds. Sometimes called the yellow-rumped warbler, the male calls with a periodic burst of chirpy whistles. Fittingly, this species was an Audubon yellow-rumped warbler.
At one point along the lakeside a couple of boys point to a large, grayish brown bird with a long, curved beak silently sitting in a bush and ask its identity. “It’s a California thrasher,” says Maggie as she pulls out her iPhone.
Playing the melodious call of this resident of the chaparral seems to puzzle the bird. It looks one way, then the other, as if wondering where this other thrasher is hiding. Just as the group continues walking back to Stow House, the bird in the bush opens its beak and almost yodels.
As kids and adults chugged water and nibbled on sweets after the walk, Andy Lanes listened to the guides’ feedback and checked bird-sighting lists. Afterward he tells me he feels the event was a success and that the chapter will want to sponsor it again next year. “We want to reach out to younger people,” he notes. This time around 25 or 30 kids participated, and 62 bird species were spotted.
Maggie Sherriffs will probably volunteer again. “Nature in general and birds in particular are wonderful,” she said. “The more time spent with them the more wonderful they are.”
Besides, by then she will have a new family member to introduce to the marvelous world of birding.