Youth spot 3,273 birds during annual count

Fifty people -#8212; including 26 kids, 14 parents and 10 volunteer docents -#8212; bundled up on Jan. 2 to spend the day counting birds.

It was the fifth annual Petaluma Christmas Bird Count for Kids, an offshoot of the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, which marked its 114th season in 2013.

And despite this winter's drought, which has affected bird migration patterns in California, the young birders saw a higher number of species and total number of birds than any of the previous four years, said Al Hesla, who coordinated the Petaluma event.

While the number of ducks and finches the birders found were lower than in previous bird counts, presumably because of the lack of water, Hesla said, the groups spotted a total of 3,273 birds representing 67 species during the day, a leap from last year's 287 birds and 32 species.

"There is no question that climate and the condition of habitats have significant impacts on the success of citizen science bird counts," said Tom Rusert, who founded the Christmas Bird Count for Kids in Sonoma Valley seven years ago. Lack of water, lack of food, cold weather and wind are all factors that can affect how many and which birds can be seen in the area.

So why, during an unusually dry winter, did this year's count turn up more birds than ever in Petaluma?

Rusert said it could be due to the time of day. The area around Schollenberger Park and the Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility -#8212; where the bird count took place -#8212; is influenced by the tides, which in turn affect the food source and how many birds are on the ground.

Indeed, due to the drought, Schollenberger Park had very little water and therefore very few birds, driving the teams of young birders -#8212; each led by a different volunteer docent -#8212; into different surrounding areas around Ellis Creek, Hesla explained.

Michelle Woodbury, of Petaluma, who brought her children Daniel, 9, and Sarah, 11, to the bird count for the first time, wasn't expecting to see as many birds as they did.

"I was impressed with the knowledge of the docents," Woodbury said, noting that she was most excited to see the hawks and a peregrine falcon during the 90-minute count.

She and her children are looking forward to the next birding event in the spring -#8212; which, Hesla explained, is a group event to observe nesting behavior in the area.

The conversation around the changing environment and bird populations is an important one, Hesla and Rusert said.

"One reason we do this," Rusert said of the Bird Count for Kids, "is that we want families to get out and enjoy nature -#8212; it's a life sport."

Rusert and fellow birder Darren Peterie founded the annual kids count after they had to turn away multiple kids away from the adult-oriented bird count. Outrage from parents mixed with a desire to foster a love for birding and the outdoors at an early age, inspired them to start a bird count exclusively for kids.

The event has taken flight across the country and into Canada, and there's now a multitude of kids' bird counts in the North Bay, including the Petaluma count, one in Point Reyes and the original Sonoma Valley count -#8212; which will be held on Jan. 12.