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Bird Atlas documents feathery flyers

People come to San Diego to bird watch from around the globe, and it's no surprise. Our skies are rich with feathery flyers. San Diego County has more kinds of plants and animals than any other county in the continental United States. Our diverse topography also draws a diversity of avian creatures. Tonight we introduce you to some locals who combed the far reaches of San Diego County documenting hundreds of species. Rebecca Tolin shows us one of the San Diego Natural History Museum's most ambitious projects -- the Bird Atlas.

They come prepared... with cameras

Phil: "The one curlew on the far right, it's color banded, red left and yellow right."

Barbara: "Oh, I see that. I see that."

Camaraderie

Bird Call: "swee, swee, swee "

And calls...

Bird Call: "squeek, squeek, squeek..."

That's right, bird calls.

Bird Call: "pshh, pshh, pshh..."

Birders even seem to have their own culture. I guess it takes one to know one. And birder I am not.

Phil Unitt, Ornithologist: "Pucker up! squeek, squeek, squeek..."

laughs

Jim: "I like these two bones here, and then I just suck....squeek, squeek, squeek."

Tolin: "Mine doesn't sound like yours!"

A quick lesson in bird calling, a few tips

Jim: "It's not a passive sport. You have to look for them. You can't just wait for them to come to you."

Phil: "But patience counts for a lot."

And we're off. These are not simply bird watchers. This group helped document all the species gracing San Diego skies. It's a more extensive list than you might think.

Jim Wilson, Birder: "It's probably one of the best in the nation. After I retired, I traveled around the country a lot, and there's none better than here in San Diego."

Tony Mercieca, Birder: "There are very few places in the world that you would get a bigger variety of birds."

Tony Mercieca travels the globe, taking photos of feather-clad creatures. He's at home in his own backyard, the Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Mercieca took photos here for a special project, headed by ornithologist Phil Unitt.

Phil Unitt: "Imagine taking a digital picture and you get a new computer that has bigger memory and you can take much sharper pictures now. And that's what we've been able to achieve with the bird atlas. It's a far sharper picture of what our environment is really like."

He's talking about the San Diego county bird atlas hot off the press. It's Unitt's brain child, and the work of hundreds of volunteers.

Tolin: "So this is basically a snapshot of all the birds in SD County today?"

Phil: "That's right, today meaning our five year study period from 1997 to 2002."

Western Bluebirds, Least Sandpipers, and Greater Yellow Legs, they're all chronicled here. There are 527 species in all. Unitt says San Diego has more kinds of birds than any other county in the country.

Phil Unitt: "We don't have a standard of comparison. That's what I'm hoping to provide with the atlas, a standard of comparison so future generations can look back and appreciate what they have lost and what they have gained."

More than 400 volunteer observers combed nearly every square mile of the county. They took notes on nesting, breeding, and migration.

Bird Call: "psshh, psshh..."

Barbara Moore considers herself a 'citizen scientist'.

Barbara Moore, birder: "Most of us are not scientists. We're teachers or retired people, but we interested in birds and we have enough knowledge that we can put together information that Phil then can use to write the atlas."

About 20 percent of the County burned in 2002 and 2003, including the Silverwood Wildlife Sanctuary in Lakeside. Scientists see it as a rare opportunity to study how quickly bird populations recover from a firestorm.

Phil: "The fires that we had in San Diego County in 2002 and 2003 were on a scope unprecedented in the recorded history of California. We simply have no idea how the natural environment would respond to a disturbance that severe."

Unitt's Atlas serves as a benchmark for fire-ravaged habitat. It was finished just before the Cedar Fire raced through the 728-acre sanctuary. Birds like the California Thrasher are slow to return to the skeleton forest.

Tolin: "I'm not seeing many birds out here. Is that because of the fire?"

Phil: "Certainly the populations of many of them are very depressed compared to what they were."

Fire decimated the forest canopy, leaving scant cover for tree dwellers. We finally spot a Sharp-Shinned Hawk and some Dark-Eyed Junkos.

Jim: "He is a little gray bird."

Phil: " With a blackish head."

Jim: "... White underneath and white outer tail feathers."

In the long term, man may be a bigger threat than fire. At least 70 species have shrunk or disappeared from San Diego County since scientists began recording such things in the late 1800s.

Barbara Moore: "More and more species -- it's not just birds, it's insects, it's a lot of other things -- are going extinct because we have taken their space. As we as a species grow and develop, we're taking the space away from the wildlife."

As program manager of the Chula Vista Nature Center, Moore has seen flocks of birds fly away. There are six endangered species at Sweetwater Marsh. Avian aficionados say they've watched helplessly as shopping centers and subdivisions swallow up habitat.

Jim Wilson: "I came to San Diego in 1960 and I've been birding here since then. And there's been a lot of change, a lot of habitat loss. I don't know what you can do about it. It's nice that there are places like this that there are still birds available to be seen."

Or at least heard. The Savannah Sparrow and Long-billed Curlew can be found here. But seeing the birds takes patience, persistence and a few tricks.

Barbara (bird calling): "pshh, pshh, pshh, pshh, pshh."

Barbara: "pshh..."

Tolin: "pshh... That's much easier than their bird call."

Barbara: "Oh, theirs are very advanced."

Phil: "squeek, squeek, squeek..."

Tolin: "I give up!"

True birders flock to the last stretch of open space on San Diego Bay. I'm told there are 225 species here. But I wonder how can hundreds of shore birds be so elusive? Phil Unitt says you have to learn the language of birds. Once you're fluent, it's like being tuned into your own secret universe.

Phil Unitt: "Once you are tuned into that world, the diversity and lifestyles and adaptations are incredible, and that's part of our natural heritage. And if we throw that out the window, it's not coming back."

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