SUISUN MARSH — Darrell Mohr and Bill Bianco walked along a muddy, narrow Suisun Marsh path on a gray Monday morning, counting different types of birds as they went.
An egret stuck its white head out of damp, green grass near a pond that stretched across the flat landscape. Mohr and Bianco made a mental note of it and kept looking, occasionally stopping and bringing binoculars to their eyes.
“A red-winged blackbird,” Mohr said.
They looked at the pond to their right. They saw a vast number of coots swimming along.
“I’m going to say about 400,” Mohr said.
All of these sightings would be added to the list for the Napa-Solano Audubon Society’s annual Benicia Christmas Bird Count. It’s the local version of a far bigger undertaking. Bird watchers all over the nation are counting birds from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, 2013, with the National Audubon Society using the data to assess the health of bird populations.
“Looks like a couple of pintails,” Mohr said a one point.
“Swans,” Bianco said at another.
Plus, they saw four otters swimming along the canal that bordered the path. They paused several seconds to watch.
“It’s a nice thing to see when you’re out,” Mohr said.
Then they got back to work. Bianco spotted a red-tailed hawk. Mohr saw a back-necked stilt and Lincoln’s sparrow.
Mohr has been a bird watcher for virtually his entire life. Bianco has long been interested in birds, but started getting more heavily involved about eight years ago, after he retired.
“I like being outdoors, getting out,” Bianco said. “It’s all part of it.”
This year’s bird count is the 113th for the National Audubon Society. The Benicia count began in 1930 and extends from Benicia to Vallejo to the Fairfield-Suisun area.
Tim Fitzer leads the Suisun Marsh count that Mohr and Bianco participated in and has done so since 1986. On Monday, he brought a group of eight or so bird enthusiasts from the Sacramento area.
The bird watchers met at 8 a.m. at the McDonald’s restaurant in Suisun City, then drove deep into the marsh on Grizzly Island Road. They passed the entrance sign proclaiming Suisun Marsh the “largest single estuarine marsh in the United States.”
Ideal weather would be clear with no wind, Fitzer said. Monday started out windy and overcast, with the sun occasionally breaking through clouds to flood parts of the landscape in a brilliant light.
It wasn’t ideal, perhaps, but the brunt of the storm had passed through during the night.
“It’s not raining,” Fitzer said with a smile, a plus given the difficulty seeing through binoculars in the rain.
Some of the bird watchers went to the Rush Ranch open space owned by the Solano Land Trust in Suisun Marsh. Most drove down eight or so miles to Van Sickle Road, a dirt road with pools of water on it from the recent rains. There, they began their trek on the back roads of the marsh, some along levees, used mostly by people going to duck clubs.
Fitzer looked at ponds through a spotting scope with the sun making momentary appearances. He found a female hooded merganser.
“How many Least sandpipers did you get?” he asked a colleague.
The answer came as 20.
Fitzer started his fascination with birds as a duck hunter. He stopped hunting about 35 years ago and a friend got him interested in bird watching.
“You meet a lot of nice people,” Fitzer said. “And it’s something you can do everywhere you go.”
The Suisun Marsh bird watchers typically make a day of it for the Benicia Christmas Bird Count. They wrap things up in the twilight looking for owls on Grizzly Island.
“One year, we had a very large number of short-eared owls – 35 ,” Mohr said. “They seemed to be everywhere.”
For a bird-watcher, that’s a nice ending to a long day in the marsh.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.