In the weeks before Christmas, most people spent their early Saturday mornings nestled snug in their beds or roaming the shopping malls with visions of the perfect gifts dancing in their heads.
But Milt Blatt and an intrepid group of San Gabriel Valley residents went tramping through scrub brush and dreaming of tufted ducks, loggerhead shrikes and red-tailed hawks.
Armed not with shopping bags and credit cards but with birding field guides and binoculars, members of the Pomona Valley Audubon Society were up before dawn earlier this month, canvassing the waters and back roads of Frank G. Bonelli County Regional Park in preparation for their annual Christmas bird count.
In a precount expedition Dec. 12, Blatt, a retired U.S. Navy civilian employee from West Covina, led a party of three men and two women. As Blatt strode through the park, he cocked his head intently, stopping at the grass near the edge of Puddingstone Reservoir.
"Hear that chirping? That's the Say's phoebe," Blatt announced to the group of retirees who were hurrying to keep up with his long-legged strides. He listened to another faint chirp and stopped dead in his tracks. "Excuse me--black phoebe! For gosh sakes, I'm getting up too early in the morning these days," he exclaimed with a chuckle.
Novice birder Beverly Pemberton of Claremont laughed back. "He could tell me it was anything, and I'd believe it," she said.
Blatt, who has led the Bonelli count since 1978, said last year's total of 89 species sighted in the park was a record. This year, the birders on Dec. 15 set a new record, counting 93 species at Bonelli Park and 145 within a 15-mile radius of Claremont.
The local count is part of a much broader effort. By Jan. 3, more than 42,000 intrepid birders will raise their binoculars from Alaska to Brazil to count the winged creatures migrating across the Americas. Their totals will be published in a special edition of the National Audubon Society's birding magazine.
Chris Martin met her husband, Jack, on a birding trip nine years ago. "It's great to see wildlife and natural things, and it's enjoyable learning to tell the birds apart," said Martin, of San Dimas.
Serious birders, such as Blatt, carry powerful spotting scopes and tripods that bring small birds hundreds of yards away into close, sharp focus. That kind of close-up view is necessary because minuscule details, such as whether a beak is yellow-orange or yellow-green, can separate one species from another. Blatt records the birds he has seen in a tiny notebook bound with a rubber band and filled with black script.
"There's a California towhee," Blatt said, pointing to a bird perched on a telephone wire. "Used to be called the brown towhee, but they changed the name."
Within the first half-hour of the birding expedition, Blatt had called out the names of two dozen species. "11 o'clock--there's a Western grebe," he said. "Two o'clock--you've got a Clark's grebe."
The coveted sighting of the day, however, was a shy wanderer from Asia--a rare tufted duck that Blatt had spotted on a visit to Bonelli earlier in the month.
For several of Blatt's birders, the tufted duck would be a "life bird," a once-in-a-lifetime sighting that could be recorded on a detailed list of sightings that serious birders prize.
As the group made its way slowly around the park, discussing rare finds, the best habitat for bird sightings and the scholarly names for birds, they also talked about their opposition to proposed commercial development of Bonelli Park.
"This place is kind of a jewel, an oasis for people to come and see what open space looks like," Blatt said, noting how much open space has disappeared from Southern California since he moved here in 1944. Over the dozen years that he has led the count at Bonelli Park, Blatt said, he has seen some species drop off his census list.
"There used to be a cow pasture north of Brackett Air Field, and I got prairie falcons there. But they've developed a business center there so those birds are gone," he said.
Other birds have dropped out of sight as various streams and ponds in the park were filled in for recreational uses, he said.
"See, to most people this looks like empty, barren space," Blatt said, indicating a cactus- and scrub-covered hillside. "But ecologically, it's a community for mammals, birds and insects."