Audubon gearing up for ‘Christmas Bird Count’

By Lee Schoenbart


Chino Farms is for the birds — and in a good way. Not only is it a preferred produce purveyor for area restaurants, but Chino Farms’ fallow ground after the fall harvest is the winter dining destination for the sandhill crane.

A sandhill crane sighting is a big deal to local avian aficionados, as the annual Christmas Bird Count gets under way around the county.

“The sandhill crane is fairly uncommon, if not rare in the county anyway, it was actually at Chino Farms,” said Robert Patton, a consulting biologist and a compiler for the annual Rancho Santa Fe Count that takes place Jan. 3.

“It looks like they plowed under the corn after the season and the crane seemed to like hanging out there for the whole winter, so to have one there, not only on the day of the count, but in the whole winter, was exciting,” Patton said.

The local count, just one of thousands across the United States begun by the Audubon Society in 1900, is a 15-mile diameter circle that extends from Torrey Pines to Cardiff on the west, and to Lake Hodges and Miramar Reservoir on the east.

Asking Patton what might be new and different this time around for the 70-plus volunteers paired together who brave the cold in the early morning darkness, is like asking the folks at Ecke Ranch to predict the success of its next hybrid poinsettia.

“At this point, I don’t know,” Patton said, “and that’s always the challenge or the great anticipation; we don’t know what’s actually going to be seen on the day of the count.

“So far leading up to it, we’ve had a smattering of rarities show up in North County within the count circle. There’s a Hermit Warbler in Del Mar, which is relatively uncommon in winter, likewise, a Western Tanager. Both of these are pretty colorful birds.

“We also got the report of a yellow-breasted chat in Del Mar, which is a fairly common bird in San Diego, between April and September. I believe there are only two previous winter records, so that’s pretty exciting. Again, it’s a real striking bird and our largest warbler.”

Patton also mentioned a couple of other finds that will delight and intrigue local birders.

“The golden-crowned kinglet is typically found in dense coniferous forests in the county and mountains. Small numbers of these tiny songbirds make their way to the Coast some winters, and are a rarity sought out during our local counts,” Patton said. “Some were spotted recently among pines in residential Del Mar, and hopes are that they’ll spend the winter here and can be re-found Jan. 3.

“There have been only about 20 mid-winter records over the years in San Diego of the striking Hermit Warbler, males easily distinguished by their bright yellow heads. Typically, this species winters in central Mexico, but one was found adjacent to San Dieguito Lagoon and will be an exciting addition to the bird count if it can be re-found.

“One of the challenges to local birders is to scan through all the common wintering warblers as they flit through the trees feeding on insects, and spot that needle-in-a-haystack rare other species.”

2010 Introductory Birding Course

  • Who: San Diego Chapter of The Audubon Society n When: 9 a.m. to noon, Feb. 13 and 20, March 13 and 27
  • Where: Tecolote Nature Center near Mission Bay
  • Field trips: 9 a.m. to noon Feb. 27 and March 20.
  • Contact: (858) 273-7800

San Diego Audubon Society Rare Bird Hotline: (619) 688-2473