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Old Baldy, Canada | photo by Cameron Schaus

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   Conservation Issues of the Ventana Chapter | monterey county

by Todd Newberry

Say's Phoebe - Photo - Michelle Scott
Say's Phoebe    Photo - Michelle Scott

A mile up the road from where I live is one of the University of California's arboretums, a spectacular site overlooking Monterey Bay. When, thirty years ago, a macadamia bush and some eucalyptus trees were planted to start this collection, these fifty acres were just the corner of a huge upland pasture, with mucky wallows and almost impenetrable thickets where, as I recall, big and scary cattle lurked. Now most of the acreage has become gardens, copses, and greenhouses filled with expatriate plants from South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. It is a nightmare for devotees of native plants but a splendid habitat for native birds. In the course of the year, a birder here will find close to eighty kinds of birds.

Allen's Hummingbird - Photo - Michelle Scott
Allen's Hummingbird    Photo - Michelle Scott

Some of the arboretum's bucolic surroundings are about to change. Beyond one fence line, a few slopes are still remnant ranchland; even now, cattle occasionally graze there. A creek has worn gentle hollows across these pastures. Misbegotten attempts long ago to turn part of the creek bed into a reservoir have left two dikes. During the winter rains one of them holds back enough water to make a respectable pond amidst the willows, and the other dike stops enough to flood a woodsy marsh. By late spring the water has seeped away into the caverns that riddle this land. The creek and its hollows are slated for "restoration," which means the loss of some old attractions for wildlife-let's hope with the gain of some new ones. But along another fence line, the university plans to border this idyllic place with a big project: townhouses for people and "indoor" cats.

As these acres have gone from pasture to gardens, their birdlife has completely changed, and more changes are in store. As the university's campus intrudes, the meadowlarks will leave the open fields where they winter now; and tree-loving accipiters and Red-shouldered Hawks will replace the harriers and Golden Eagles and Red-tails that scour the grasslands. Quail flourish in the arboretum. When they find those quail-and find the thrashers, too, and the towhees and the other ground-loving birds that have adopted the arboretum's gardens as their own-the new townhouses' escapee cats will think they have arrived in Heaven and the birds will learn about Hell.

Tree Swallow -  Photo - Michelle Scott
Tree Swallow    Photo - Michelle Scott

I wish I had had the patience and the gumption to monitor the arboretum's birdlife over these past decades, for it has been an ecological theater transformed while the play on its stage went on. Do the arithmetic: in those thirty years, had I visited the place for only a couple of hours weekly on the way to work, instead of just driving by, I would have documented some three thousand hours of ecological observations. What an opportunity squandered! And with all this activity afoot around the place's edges, who will record what happens next to the birds that live here now? Someone should, anyone can-even I.

Monitoring a patch, even a glorious one like this arboretum, usually seems trivial as you do it. (Of course, that's been my excuse.) Week by week, not much happens, and what does mark the calendar as species arrive and depart is roughly predictable. The same date rolls around again, and mostly the same kinds and numbers of birds seem to be there. Censuses go along briskly enough; but as the weeks stretch on, they can feel tedious. The data sheets fill slowly. Truancy tempts. That's when we need to remember the childhood hymn about how little drops of water and little grains of sand made the mighty ocean and the fruitful land. Here on our patch, those drops and grains are what we are monitoring.

Tree Swallow -  Photo - Michelle Scott
Tree Swallow Photo - Michelle Scott

Not all patches are as birdy as UCSC's arboretum. But over the seasons, most are birdier than they may first appear to be. An embarrassing case in point: One August afternoon forty years ago in the Big Sur, my wife and I followed a lazy river from the highway to the sea. It was hot and still; the path seemed all but birdless. "Well, Louise," I declared after an hour, "we can write off this place." "This place" has since become the Big Sur Ornithological Lab, one of the liveliest birding sites on the central California coast. Moral: In an unfamiliar place, be more patient than I was that day.

Unlike the Big Sur Lab, most patches won't make ornithological headlines. But that doesn't matter. The very exercise of monitoring a habitat's ongoing birdlife instills some of a naturalist's skills, keenness, and patience. In fact, the sheer pleasure of following the seasons on a patch of one's own is reward enough. Take good notes!

Todd Newberry is Professor Emeritus of Biology at U.C. Santa Cruz and a founding Fellow of Cowell College there. He is an invertebrate zoologist, a marine biologist, and a lifelong ardent birder.

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