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How (Not) to Do a Point Count (Simone)

It was chilly and grey out when Mel, Joe, and I left camp this morning, but the birds near our cabin were singing their hearts out…as per normal for around here. As we turned on some tunes to wake us up the rain started in earnest and the three of us started to have misgivings about the day. We do not do point counts when any “significant” amount of rain is falling and right now there was a “significant” amount of rain. A decision was made that we would go to my drop off point and see what the weather was doing by then.  Arriving at an intersection with my transect nearby (or so I thought), we waited about 10 minutes and the rain stopped pretty much all together. The concensus was that it was probably ok to start point counts now. I hopped out with the agreement that we would quit and come back to this intersection if the rain really started up again. I headed off down an old road.

My first point was 2.71km away! At least I didn’t have to crash through the woods to find it. However, it had been raining steadily before I arrived so all the shrubbery was soaking wet, dripping wet, and very attracted to my clothing. As I meandered (aka walked briskly) down the road I could see that this road was a favorite of bears. There was scat everywhere and it didn’t look very old either. The road was not completely overgrown but it was pretty darn close and even in the places where it wasn’t, the shrubs bent over into the road from the weight of the water. It was obvious that I was going to have to go straight through these soaking wet shrubs. At least they were –somewhat- easy to push aside. I figured I was making enough noise walking to scare away any bears in the vicinity. But I whistled and yelled here and there just in case. As I crashed through the brush all I could think about was coming face to face with a bear in the overgrown road. Who would be more scared? Would the bear run away in fright or try to smack me in the face with a huge, sharp-clawed paw? It would be quite comical to watch this unfold from far away but I wasn’t really in the mood to find out in reality. Then or ever.

I was pretty wet even before I got to my first point (at the end of the road, down the hill, in the middle of nowhere, probably surrounded by bears with no cell phone service). That’s just when the rain decided to pick up. At first it was a sprinkle but then it was pretty much a downpour. I decided to do the point anyway and see what the bird numbers looked like. I was pleased to see that I was still getting a good number of species (around 12 per point) so I decided to press on. I had been quite thoughtless and was wearing cotton pants and a tee-shirt and sweatshirt. I was thoroughly soaked by the time I was done with about a third of my points. Back up the road I went and it was harder to hike now because the water felt like it had added about 183 pounds of weight. But the area was quite birdy and I decided to focus on that rather than the fact that I was (probably) surrounded by bears, (definitely) soaking wet and (definitely) at least two miles from a drivable road. I decided to grab a big stick to ward off predators and to shake the water off the brush before I attempted to swim through it, most likely narrowly avoiding angry bears. By now I had been hiking for about 2 hours in the rain and rain-covered foliage. I wasn’t cold yet (I was always moving) but it was a bit uncomfortable. At one point as I attempted to push though the thick, soaking wet willows and other shrubs I just closed my eyes and barreled through. The long, thin branches smacked me in the face and a bug was flung into my mouth in the process. As I emerged spitting from the tangle of overgrowth my hair was stuck in all kinds of strange ways to my face and I marveled at the fact that my hair hadn’t taken one of the entire willow plants with it.

I finally made it through to the open part of the road again and thought to myself how silly I must look. I had a large stick, a GPS, a soaking wet backpack, crazy hair and to top it off – drenched pants and a sweatshirt that was peppered with willow inflorescences, dead bugs, leaves, and small sticks. I was beginning to think perhaps a bear would be way more afraid of me than me of him due to my insane appearance that had taken very little effort to achieve. Even so, during these transects that are surrounded by thick brush and/or are impossible to see more 20 feet into diameter around, the adrenalin is coursing through your body. Not so much as it would be if you came face to face with a bear or other large predator but enough that when you hear a train in the distance, Blue Grouse drumming, branch snap, raindrop hit a Big Leaf Maple, or Anna’s Hummingbird whiz by your head you stop breathing for a moment to get a better handle on the noise. Thus I thought, “What exactly am I doing out here?” Oh right, I’m getting paid to look at birds!

Say it like that and it sounds easy, way too easy. Now if you add to “look at birds” with: clamber up and down mountains, battle sword-like dead manzanitas, camp in the blowing wind and rain on the top of a ridge, watch for bears and mountain lions, navigate in the wilderness with a compass and a sometimes working GPS, fall face first into streams, stumble down shale-covered hills, get completely turned around and head away from the road on accident because every tree and meadow looks like every other tree and meadow, hike in the blazing sun with no cover, hike in the steady rain with no cover, battle through shrub fields that make you feel as though someone is trying to play a horrible trick on you or has perhaps thrown you into a video game where the end has already been decided and no, you don’t win, try to concentrate on listening to birds with heavy machinery, loud streams, trains, Cassin’s Vireos that won’t shut up, scolding Steller’s Jays, Wild Turkeys making a ruckus that sounds like a turkey riding a donkey with a harmonica down a mountain in the background, oh yes, did I mention this all starts between 5 and 6am?

What do you say? This all sounds quite stressful and hard, maybe not worth it? Well, no, of course not! To all this there must be added the endless array of wildflowers emerging with such a burst of colors that you can hardly stand to look at them sometimes, the male songbirds perched on their favorite branches, beak to the sky and chests puffed out, singing their hearts out for all they’re worth, the sunrise breaking over the hills of unbroken forest, the mist-shrouded hills and rocky cliffs where you know a mountain lion must make its home, the tightly woven and perfectly round nest of the Dusky Flycatcher nest in a dead manzanita in a severely burned forest that shows you that life goes on no matter what the circumstances, the Steller’s Jay chicks growing so fast you can barely believe, the countless number of streams flowing slowly but steadily towards their final place. All of these things make the terrain in the Sierra stunning, dangerous, breath-taking, unique, unforgiving and pretty unbelievable anyway you look at it. So yes, I get paid to look at birds but there are a few other things I get paid to do as well and the birds are just the beginning…

Filed under: Field Work, Sierra Nevadas

About the Author

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I am a natural history writer and photographer, obsessed birder, naturalist, and artist. When I'm not learning by reading, drawing, painting, taking photos, or being outside, I am probably asleep.

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