SUISUN CITY — Valerie Phillips found an elusive burrowing owl on a hill in Suisun Marsh, definitely a victory for this group of four bird watchers.
The bird watchers looked at the owl. Through their binoculars, the owl could be seen staring at them, its yellow eyes taking up much of its face as it peeked its head up from a burrow.
Finding a small, brown owl amid a brushy landscape unusually brown for December is no easy task.
“I check out every little lump, especially one next to a hole,” Phillips said.
With that, the bird-watching crew checked off another find for the Napa-Solano Audubon Society Benicia Christmas Bird Count. About 90 bird watchers on Monday counted birds in a 177-square-mile area extending from Benicia and Vallejo into Suisun Marsh.
The local bird count, in turn, is part of a national bird count that allows the Audubon Society to assess the health of bird populations.
A group from Sacramento usually travels to do the count in Suisun Marsh. Phillips of Citrus Heights, Sonja Sorbo of Roseville, Rosalind Becker of Sacramento and Terry Atkinson of Citrus Heights went to the Rush Ranch, a Suisun Marsh open space area owned by the Solano Land Trust about two miles south of Suisun City.
The four started walking along a trail in a brushy area used for cattle grazing at about 8:45 a.m. They wore mittens, jackets and hats to protect against a slight but cold breeze. The sun shone in a mostly cloudless sky.
Every now and then, they came to a quick stop and put binoculars to eyes to watch a bird.
“It’s so much fun,” Sorbo said. “Mother Nature is sharing a precious jewel with you.”
They had no trouble finding these jewels at Rush Ranch. What seemed to be a quiet and even a dry, desolate landscape in sections had plenty of birds to see, for the patient and attentive seeker.
“It’s a hummingbird – it’s Anna’s Hummingbird,” Phillips said one moment.
“It’s a tree swallow,” Sorbo said a short time later.
The bird watchers passed near tules along Suisun Slough and broke into smiles. They saw a snipe fly away, its bill about half the length of its body.
“They love mud. Really shallow water with mud,” Sorbo said.
A white Great Egret could be seen over the marsh in the distance. A Northern Harrier flew by. A Say’s Phoebe flew close to the ground along a small hill and seemed almost to be tracking the bird-watching group. A shrike sat on a barbed-wire fence.
“Birding is all about timing,” Sorbo said. “You go to the habitat where you know they’re going to be and it’s up to them to come out.”
Still, the bird watcher must see the bird – or hear it. Sorbo said she also finds and identifies birds by their sounds.
Sorbo saw a Virginia Rail amid an expanse of dry tules. She heard its call. She took out her cellular phone, punched in an Audubon app and held up the phone as a Virginia Rail call came from it.
She got an instant response – the same sound came from several different places amid the tules. The group had found at least three Virginia Rails, even though none of the birds could be seen.
Sorbo came on the outing hoping to see one bird in particular.
“The Black Rail,” she said.
She’s not alone among bird watchers in hoping to spot one. The Black Rail is as small as a mouse, rare and reclusive. But it is found in Suisun Marsh, so Sorbo at least had a chance.
Monday morning was cold, clear and almost windless – in short, good conditions for bird watching. The Benicia Christmas Bird Count often takes place on rainy days that make it harder to find birds.
Tim Fitzer, who organized the group of a dozen or so bird watchers who dispersed to different Suisun Marsh locations, approved. No wind, no rain, no fog, he said.
“Those are just all plusses,” he said. “Usually there’s one of those . . . . Today should be a really good day.”
Robin Leong of the Napa-Solano Audubon Society said the group has bird count data going back 110 years.
Data show the decline of some species and expansion of other species, he said in an email. It can be used to see global warming as more species show up in the region, he said.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.