Saturday, August 2, 2008

Utter Exhaustion

Want to know how to completely exhaust yourself? Volunteer to help work Sea and Sage Audubon's Advanced Bird Camp. That's not all. You must awake early every morning and ride fifteen miles down to San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (where the camp is), and perhaps ride fifteen grueling uphill miles back if you see a new species for your Bigby list. Thirty miles on a bike in a day isn't very far, but sandwiched between the ride down and the ride back are seven hours of tramping about San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and attempting to keep a bunch of hyper kids in order. Then, on Friday night, you foolishly stay up until one in the morning playing cards and trading jokes with campers on the clammy floor of the Audubon House. Am I complaining? No way. It was fun.

The days blended together into a blur of birds. Every morning we split up into groups and stomped around the marsh, seeking birds. On Monday I got very lucky - a Gull-billed Tern winged by as our group was headed back to the Duck Club late in the morning. A rather rare bird (though unusual numbers have shown up in the area this year), and a new Bigby bird for me. This meant I had to pedal home under a blazing sun, with only one water bottle to keep me going. How I lost my other bottle is a story in itself; all I will say is that it involved my clumsiness and a street drain.

Of course, the common birds of the marsh put on a show for the kids. Many of the kids were very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. One morning we were treated to the sight of a rowdy juvenile Least Tern begging for food from its parent. The juvenile flew around the adult, screaming constantly, while the adult plunge dove for fish. Eventually the juvenile got his meal and spent a few minutes resting on the shoreline.

Shorebird migration was more than a little evident throughout the week. Big flocks of Long-billed Dowitchers (early on Friday morning I counted roughly one hundred and fifty in the first three ponds alone) congregated in the shallow areas of the ponds. Peeps weren't as numerous as dowitchers, though some Western and Least Sandpipers showed up. I finally saw my first juvenile Western Sandpipers of the year, true beauties clad in subtle tones of buff, brown, gray, and rufuous. A handful of Wilson's Phalaropes were present the entire week.

Of course, the campers were encouraged to look for not only birds but also plants, insects, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and anything else that crossed their paths. As usual, I kept a sharp eye out for butterflies. I saw several Queens (Danaus gilippus), including this one that cooperated for the camera.

Bird walks were not the only activities that we did. We taught bird lessons to the kids inside the duck club, played bird games, and painted Red-breasted Merganser decoys (photo at top). It was great to see the kids so interested in the bird lessons. None of the kids were hardcore birders, but undoubtedly they now know far more about birds and the environment than the average kid nowadays.

Even now I battle to keep my eyelids from shutting. Was it worth it? Yup. Will I be doing it next year? Hopefully. Now my task is to find a comfortable spot for a quiet nap.


Birdnerdguy said...

C'mon Neil, you're tougher than this!

Allen Chartier said...

Hey Neil, where can I get one of those cool rubber duckies!