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Bird life changes in Carrizo Plain

Posted: Thursday, Jan 14th, 2010

This year’s numbers are in for the Christmas count, a yearly bird count across the U.S. that includes a one-day count in Carrizo Plain, locally, and which gives avian enthusiasts a way to track trends, which have vastly changed in Carrizo since it became a national monument in 2001.

When Carrizo Plain became a monument by presidential proclamation under Bill Clinton, the goal became to return the 250,000-acre plain to its pre-colonial ecosystem from land that was largely ranched then, with limited ranch use these days, according to the United States Geological Survey.

One notable bird change is that of the horned lark, which thrives in closely grazed land. Roger Zachary, a retired Atascadero High School science teacher, leads the count, and talked about this year’s findings.

“Because there used to be grazing, that attracted certain kinds of birds,” Zachary said. “This year there were 3,804 horned larks, but in 1986 there were 37,055. All this information goes into the network through the Audobon Society.”

Carrizo is run by The Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Department of Fish and Game, working together to protect the habitat.

“We’ve changed it, and now we’re trying to change it back,” Zachary said. “Before people settled, all the wetlands and other wildlife…Carrizo is a remnant of what the San Joaquin Valley might have been. It’s got a cluster of endangered species there, not only birds, but the blunt-nosed leopard lizard; San Joaquin kit fox; giant kangaroo rat and San Joaquin ground squirrel.”

There are many birds of prey, such as golden eagles, rough-legged hawks, ferruginous hawks and prairie falcons.

“There are birds found pretty much out there during the winter, not found elsewhere, like the mountain plovers, and they’re kind of a species of special concern,” Zachary said. “On Jan. 21, there will be a mountain plover and long-billed curlew survey — they’re kind of birds of interest. The curlew is kind of the symbol for the plain because it winters there. The plover is a special concern — they’re looking at it; there aren’t many populations.”

There were 2,500 curlew in 1996, but only 128 were counted this year, and experts can only guess why.

“There are different plants out there now — they used to grow grain out there; there was more ranching, that means the cows would be defecating, and there might be more insects because of their droppings,” Zachary said. “It’s all speculation right now.”

The Carrizo preserve still encompasses private land holdings that are used for limited cattle ranching and dry-land farming, according to the U.S. Geological Survey

The Christmas count group found and identified 66 species of birds in Carrizo Plain, which was expected in a survey that normally identifies from 55 to 75 bird species.

“During normal years when there’s water in Soda Lake, we usually have a higher count, but this year there was just a little in the south end of Soda Lake,” Zachary said.

The total number of individual birds came to 9,026.

“Those numbers vary, depending on the weather conditions,” Zachary said.

Some other birds of interest are burrowing owls, long-eared owls and short-eared owls, mountain bluebirds, different from western bluebirds, sage thrasher, vesper sparrow and sage sparrow.

Carizzo Plain is around 55 miles from Atascadero and is open to the public.

For more information on Carrizo, go to

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