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CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT GOOD FOR A GANDER ANNUAL CENSUS PROVIDES CLUES TO LONG-TERM TRENDS.

Byline: Holly Edwards Staff Writer

ENCINO - Aiming his binoculars at brush-filled scrub land Saturday in the Sepulveda Basin, Kris Ohlenkamp spotted a rare white-tailed kite - the first such sighting this year - as a small flock of white pelicans flew overhead.

Joining dozens of bird watchers across the San Fernando Valley, and an estimated 50,000 worldwide, the 51-year-old Ohlenkamp led a small group through the wildlife basin for the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.

``It's the discovery of it that's exciting,'' he said. ``I'm always learning something new and constantly honing my powers of observation.''

Ohlenkamp's observation skills are so finely tuned after years of bird watching that many in the group stood in puzzlement as he pointed to tiny flecks in the trees and called out the names of bird species.

``There's a sharp-shinned hawk,'' he said bending down quickly and pointing at a bush as a bird darted into it.

Initiated on Christmas Day 1900, the annual count has spawned the longest-running database of early winter bird populations across the Northern Hemisphere, according to the National Audubon Society.

Across the San Fernando Valley, bird counts were held at Pierce College, Chatsworth Reservoir, O'Melveny Park in Granada Hills, and Wilson Canyon in Sylmar. Because of new security concerns, the Encino and Van Norman reservoirs were off limits to bird counters this year.

The Audubon Society's national office compiles the data each year and sends its findings to researchers at Cornell University in New York to be analyzed, said Dan Cooper, director of bird conservation for Audubon California.

While one year's statistics are virtually meaningless due to variables - the number of counters, weather, location - the count provides important information about long-term trends, said Cooper.

Since the bird count was created more than a century ago in response to the widespread slaughter of birds and wildlife, Cooper said, a variety of new threats have appeared.

Pollution and loss of habitat are harming bird species nationwide, he said, but the biggest threat to some bird species in the Valley was the introduction of water in 1913 with the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

As the Valley was transformed from grassland into a patchwork of yards, swimming pools and man-made lakes, Cooper said, several bird species have almost vanished, while new non-native species are spotted each year.

``The open, sandy native landscape has been almost totally obliterated in the Valley, except for part of the Sepulveda Basin and Tujunga Wash,'' said Cooper, a Valley native. ``As a result, birds that thrive in grassland are almost gone.''

For example, Cooper said, roadrunners and ground-burrowing owls once thrived in the Valley, but are now nearly gone here. Meanwhile, water birds are appearing for the first time, particularly in the lush Sepulveda Basin.

A flock of nearly 200 white pelicans - normally seen in inland waterways - descended on the basin for the first time this fall, and the number of egrets, cormorants and sea gulls is growing yearly, said Ohlenkamp.

In all, 225 bird species have been seen in the basin, he said.

Judy Halama of Encino, who has been walking through the basin several times each week since retiring last year, said the bird count was just the education she needed as a novice bird watcher. ``I'm always walking through here with my little book and trying to figure out what I'm looking at,'' she said. ``The big stuff is easy, but it's the little things that are hard to identify.''

Cooper and Arthur Langston, an Audubon Society member who counted birds at Chatsworth Reservoir on Saturday, said their participation in the Christmas Bird Count decades ago sparked their interest in watching and protecting birds.

``It's a good excuse to be outside and connect with nature,'' said Langston. ``And it's kind of like fishing. You never know what you're going to catch.''

CAPTION(S):

5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 3 -- color) Encino resident Bill Halama, above, uses binoculars for a closer look during Saturday's Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count at the Sepulveda Basin. Upper right, a kestral falcon perches high in a tree, making itself an easy target for counters. Below right, a pair of white pelicans glide along the surface of a pond in the Sepulveda Basin.

(4) An elegant entry in Saturday's annual bird count by the Audubon Club is reflected in the water at Sepulveda Basin.

(5) Bird counters, from left, Judy Halama, Kris Ohlenkamp and Andrew Federonich search the skies and trees Saturday during the Christmas Bird Count at Sepulveda Basin.

Tina Burch/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Dec 16, 2001
Words:754
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