The complex of wildfires in late summer that burned large swathes of Yolo, Solano, Napa and other counties devoured oak woodland, forest and chaparral indiscriminately. Wanting a sense of the effects of those fires on the birds of the area, Steve Hampton and I pored over reports from birders around the burned zones, both during and after the fires. These included systematic surveys in two locales that experienced major fire damage, namely, at Audubon California’s Bobcat Ranch and the Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count circle.
We looked for records of species that inhabit places that were burned and showed up in nearby places where they are normally absent, or showed up in unusually large numbers in suitable habitat close to the fire zones. Such birds could be regarded as fire refugees. We reviewed Christmas Count results in burned areas to compare tallies by species between 2020 and prior years. The differences could give an idea of how many birds went missing from vegetation that had been destroyed.
Birders found apparent fire refugees of several species. The first-ever hairy woodpecker in Davis, the first California thrasher in Winters, the first mountain quail in the non-chaparral part of Bobcat Ranch, numerous band-tailed pigeon flocks on the Valley floor, a northern pygmy owl at Fishing Access #3 and three of them in the English Hills near Vacaville (on the Christmas Bird Count), Hutton’s vireo in late summer in the Valley, white-breasted nuthatches in many parts of Davis, and wrentits crowded into the remnant ribbon of green in Putah Creek canyon, plus a few further downstream—all were likely driven out of the fire zones. At Bobcat Ranch there was an autumnal explosion in numbers of acorn woodpecker, oak titmouse and white-breasted nuthatch close to the burned area of the ranch.
Fires are no stranger to the Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count circle; there have been at least two dozen. However, the LNU Complex Fire in 2020 burned more acres than all previous fires combined, including most of the accessible portions of Areas 1, 2, 8, and 10, and much of Areas 3, 6, 7, and 9.
The Count results reflected the consequences. Despite excellent bird-finding weather, we recorded low numbers of chaparral ridge-inhabitants and canyon berry-eaters, including California thrasher, wrentit, Steller’s jay, and American robin. Wrentit numbers in Area 10 (Cold Canyon) fell from 103 last year to 42 this year. Area 8 (Mix and Gates Canyons) usually reports 200 to 800 American robins; this year they found only one bird. We completely missed Chestnut-backed chickadee and varied thrush (forest dwellers), and Bell’s sparrow and Thick-billed fox sparrow (chaparral dwellers). Their habitats had been torched.
Those are the highlights. Read more about fire history and the 2020 Christmas Bird Count in next month’s newsletter.
Michael Perrone, Conservation Chair
All photos © Sarah Mayhew