Early risers get the birds...sometimes

SUNRISE OVER PIXLEY:  Once a month from September to February, staff and volunteers gather at national wildlife refuges across the west to participate in waterfowl surveys. “Having this information is vital to what we do,” says Nick Stanley, project leader at Kern National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Delano, Calif. “These surveys help us gauge if we are being successful in our land management.” Credit: Anita Ritenhour/Flickr CC

By Byrhonda Lyons
March 1, 2017

It was 6 a.m., and dark. The occasional beaming headlights illuminated the mist. A crew of five gathered at the main entrance of the Pixley National Wildlife Refuge, 45 miles north of Bakersfield, Calif., waiting for the thick fog to break, so they could do their jobs: count the number of birds on the refuge.

“There’s someone on the south end, the east, the west and the north,” said Miguel Jimenez, operations specialist on the refuge. “Each surveyor counts the number of birds that fly over the side they are responsible for.”

Gathering at the entrance to Pixley National Wildlife Refuge, volunteers (from left to right), Susan Castle and Kevin Fahey, and refuge staff Geoff Grisdale, Miguel Jimenez and Kathryn Heffernan  prepare to spread out across the refuge to estimate the number of birds on a foggy morning in the central valley. Credit: Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

Jimenez, along with the refuge staff, does this once a month from September to February. He rises early to survey the number of birds using the refuge. But on this Wednesday, things were not going smoothly.

Instead of seeing thousands of birds fly off the refuge’s wetlands, it was a waiting game.

Will the refuge’s staff be able to get their jobs done or will they have to try again on another day?

A part of the Kern National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Pixley National Wildlife Refuge is known for its small, seasonal marsh wetlands. Pixley NWR has some of the last significant acres of the southern San Joaquin Valley’s grassland habitat. During the winter months, it is the best place in the Valley to view Sandhill cranes. And that’s exactly what Jimenez was trying to do.

Miguel Jimenez, an operations specialist for the Kern
National Wildlife Refige Complex , coordinates ongoing
bird counts. Credit: Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

Conducting migratory bird counts or biological surveys play a major role on refuges. From year-in to year-out, Service employees are collecting information about how wildlife are using the refuge.

“Having this information is vital to what we do,” said Nick Stanley, project leader at Kern National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Delano, Calif. “The surveys help us gauge if we are being successful in our land management.”

During bird migration, refuge biologists survey the number of birds, including waterfowl, Sandhill cranes, raptors, songbirds and shorebirds. During the summer, they survey three endangered species on the refuge: the San Joaquin kit fox, blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the Tipton kangaroo rat.

Sandhill cranes arrive each evening to roost in the refuge at sunset. Credit: Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

“We try to capture year-round data,” Stanley said. However, frequently surveying for wildlife can be labor-intensive for the small refuge.

“We didn’t have a biologist for a while, so there were surveys that weren’t getting done,” Stanley added. “It can be tough trying to do so much with a small staff, but we have to prioritize our objectives for the year.”

While the refuge has recently hired more employees, they still depend on volunteers to help with wildlife surveys.

It was no different on that morning. Kevin Fahey, president of Kern Audubon, and Susan Castle, also a member of Kern Audubon, got up early and drove to the refuge from Bakersfield to help refuge biologists count birds.

“We came out to help because the refuge was shy one person for today’s survey,” Fahey said. “I kind of have a preference for this little spot on the south side because there’s a beautiful panorama where I can watch the birds flying off the refuge. You get to count the birds and enjoy their beauty at the same time.”

A flock of Sandhill cranes pass in front of a setting sun on Pixley National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Byrhonda Lyons/USFWS

But unfortunately, Fahey and Castle did not get to see that beautiful view.

“On a normal morning out here, there’s a rumble coming off on the preserve,” Fahey said. “It sounds like a machine or something. This morning, I heard very little of it.” The fog was the culprit.

By 7:15 a.m., there was no sound coming from the sky. The cranes had left the refuge, and soon after, everyone else did too.

“We’ll try again next week,” Jimenez said.

Fahey headed back to Bakersfield. The Service employees went to their offices, still unsure of how many birds used the refuge that night. The fog: still thick.

Byrhonda Lyons is a public affairs specialist and social media manager for the Pacific Southwest Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, located in Sacramento, Calif.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CENTRAL VALLEY FOG -- "It was hard to see anything at all that morning, the fog was so thick,"  says Byrhonda, of her trip to Pixley National Wildlife Refuge. "I should have picked a better day."  Credit: Burhonda Lyons/USFWS