Birding the Burn

On their annual Christmas Bird Count, a group in California's wine country returns to a landscape transformed by fire.

Before dawn on December 29, nine birders meet in the same, dark elementary school parking lot where we’ve gathered every December for the past 13 years. We’re here, as usual, to tally bird species for the Sonoma Valley Christmas Bird Count. Today, though, as we go through our standard routine—catching up on the past year, arranging carpools—there’s an unusual sense of trepidation. This fall, wildfires raged through this area of California’s wine country. When David Leland, our leader and veteran of some 45 counts, scouted the area over the past few days, he wasn’t encouraged. “Some places are pretty bombed out,” he says, “with almost no bird activity.”

Our assigned area, named Trinity, is one of nine within the Sonoma Valley Christmas Bird Count (CBC) circle. Established in 2005 by Tom Rusert and Darren Peterie of SonomaNature, the Sonoma Valley CBC encompasses 113,097 acres of mountain, valley, marsh, and bay land. It’s just one of over 2,000 CBCs completed around the world this season, whose combined data take a snapshot of global bird life. Last winter was both a record-rainfall year and above-average CBC here, with 77 bird species in the Trinity and 164 in the valley overall.

The value of such persistent, long-term datasets is evident this year; it’s only because we’ve birded here at the same time annually that we might tell how wildfires affected our birds. The Nuns Fire that raced into both Sonoma and Napa Counties beginning on October 8 hit 8,172-acre Trinity the hardest of the nine established Sonoma Valley CBC areas: 93 percent of Trinity burned, compared to 0.3 to 51 percent burn cover in the other eight. First as a firestorm pushed by dry Diablo winds, then continuing as slower ground burns for 24 days, the Nuns Fire killed two people in their homes and a firefighter in a water-truck accident, destroyed 1,000 structures, and scorched 57,000 acres of urban and wild habitat.

The fire also threatened all the Trinity birders’ lives and properties; we all evacuated. By some stroke of luck, none of us were injured or lost homes. “We talk about it daily, what could have happened,” says Anke Snow, a Trinity birder since 2005. Her family left the valley when her 8-year-old son had trouble breathing the smoky air. “I regularly have fire dreams. Not fun.”

We head first for the Wildwood Vineyards, our only stop that didn’t burn. Canada Geese call and rise from misty ponds while Buffleheads and Mallards raft over the mirrored water. Dormant vines, clusters of redwood, and emerald annual grasses all appear unchanged from last year.

Hopes lifting, we continue south to meet Trinity birder and ranch-owner Julie Atwood on her 78-acre property. Her vineyard and pasture on redwood-lined Calabazas Creek burned over twice. “The fire started around 10 at night and just missed our house,” she says. "Embers were flying, the creek blazing, flames jumping through the canopy. Our forest smoldered and flared up for a month afterward. I still don’t sleep at night.”

The woods on the hills behind Atwood’s home are burnt and smell of coal. Botanist Ann Howald, a 25-year CBC birder, points out that many of these trees are still alive. “The Ponderosa pines, for instance, are exceptionally well-adapted to fire,” she says. “Their thin, living layer can survive under that thick, charred bark depending on how hot it gets.”

We split up to count both sides of Calabazas Creek. With the understory stripped out by fire, streambanks are visible as never before. Previously impenetrable blackberry thickets are now ash. A Pileated Woodpecker pounding a limb is easy to spot through once-dense woods, as is a Lincoln’s Sparrow foraging among singed logs and stumps.

We regroup near Atwood’s home, where we delight in our single rare bird of the day: a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker perched like a holiday ornament on one of the only remaining persimmons.

Driving into the 2,500 feet of Mayacamas slopes blackened by fire, we bird a “little green spot” among the overwhelmingly destroyed uplands. In a stand of manzanita in bloom near toyon ripe with berries, Anna’s Hummingbirds helicopter over the intact chaparral, buzzing and diving. Otherwise, as Leland notes, the ridges are quiet “even if they didn’t burn.”

At the mountaintop property of Trinity birders Marc Schwager and Allison Ash, we hike among knobcone pine and more scorched chaparral. Robins mobbed the hillside right after the fire, Ash says—“now we’re not seeing any.” In the fading light, she points across the drainage to a denuded hillside. There, the Nuns Fire killed a neighbor in his home, “the one neighbor we lost.”

After dark, all nine Sonoma Valley CBC groups converge at the Sonoma Community Center for our traditional Count Dinner. The room is jovial, with three long tables full of birders enjoying local wine and chowder. Many are Madrone Audubon Society members, including count founders Rusert and Peterie of SonomaNature, which sponsors the event with the Sonoma Ecology Center. Richard Dale, the center’s executive director, has crunched count data with his team since the Sonoma Valley CBC began.

Compiler Gene Hunn, also a Madrone Audubon member, runs down a list of species names; group leaders shout out a hearty “Yes!” if they’ve seen the bird. As the numbers come in strong, there’s a hum of excitement in the room. “The total of 162 species is just above the average of 161.5 species for the previous 12 years,” Hunn says,“ and a shade short of last year’s 164.” While we counted fewer birds total—75 percent fewer individuals than in a typical year—bird species counts remained high. Trinity birders tallied 71 species, down from last year but on par with our long-term average.

So the birds are still there—though some were found in unusual habitat. “Some species stand out as likely displaced by fires,” Hunn says. Band-tailed Pigeons, often hidden in dense habitat, were seen 350 percent more than in a typical year. In Trinity, Wrentits—usually found in our chaparral sites—were seen not far from the numerous Band-tailed Pigeons near the valley floor. American Robins, by contrast, were scarce from their usual haunts, at just over 20 percent of average. California Thrashers, associated with the upland chaparral, weren’t spotted in the Trinity at all. Leland says he’s seen similar redistributions of species before, even without record fires. “Especially in wet or dry years, birds spread out or group up around water,” he says. “Today they’re in the unburned areas. They find someplace to be.”

And we found someplace to be, too. It’s a hopeful night after the count, “a community moment and pretty powerful,” Leland says. Atwood adds, “I so enjoyed the companionship—even more than usual.”

Trinity birder Christine Engle found the day important for another reason as well. “In dynamic California, with its fires, earthquakes, and floods, the birds teach us about beauty and survival,” she says. “That’s so evident during the count.”

Correction: The original article misstated the total acreage of the Sonoma Valley CBC circle. It covers 113,097 acres, not 84,067 acres.


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