A Close-up View of a California Fire and the Aftermath
Many FeederWatchers were affected by the 2003 fires in California. Karen Barr from El Cajon, California, and Connie Jordan from Julian, California, lost their homes to the fires. Both are rebuilding and soon will be counting their birds for FeederWatch again.
Herman Paulk, from San Bernardino, California, was one of the lucky ones. His home survived fires that he could see from his doorstep. However, the mountains around him were devastated, and now mudslides are a constant worry.
Paulk described the approaching fires, “It was about 9:30 a.m., and we had just eaten breakfast at one of our favorite restaurants near the Waterman Canyon area. When coming out of the door of the restaurant, we immediately saw a fire.”
“Because the fire was rapidly advancing…, we prepared for the worst when we got home, packing all of our valuables and getting together emergency supplies. By that evening the fire had reached the Devils Canyon area and was advancing on all fronts. The foothills to the east of us were on fire and the fire was nearly to our house…. Thankfully the firefighters, who did not get enough credit for their magnificent effort, were able to save our home along with all the homes right around us.”
Paulk was observing what became known as the “Old Fire.” According to the USDA Forest Service, the Old Fire, combined with the nearby Grand Prix Fire, burned more than 91, 000 acres and 993 homes.
While sorting through some old FeederWatch photos, we discovered a photo that Herman Paulk sent in back in 1995, showing his proximity to the San Bernardino Mountains. The photo caught our eye because we recognized the mountains as the same ones featured in recent photos Paulk sent after the fires.
After the fires, Paulk reported, “the mountains behind our house and all along the San Bernardino Mountain area are bare of vegetation. The heavy growth that was once there is all gone, leaving nothing but the burnt out brush.”
Birds have responded to the fires and the aftermath in different ways. Some species turned to bird feeders to supplement the lost natural foods while others appear to have moved to new locations. Paulk has been observing the wildlife around his home and made some comparisons to his observations from before the fires.
He reported, “Right away we noticed we were getting a larger number of California Quail (below) visiting around the base of our feeders…. This winter we have had over 100 quail at one time. During my past FeederWatch counts, my largest counts of California Quail were in the forties.”
In addition to quail, he has also seen an increase in California Thrashers (left). He now has four or five of these thrashers visiting his feeders regularly. Before the fire this species rarely visited.
Some species, on the other hand, have declined. He now sees fewer White-crowned Sparrows and Lark Sparrows than he used to. “There has been a real reduction in the number of White-crowned Sparrows coming to our feeders during the winter months… In previous years, my count for this species was in the high 40’s; after the fire, the largest number I’ve seen…has been 15 to 16 birds.
Participants like Herman Paulk are helping Project FeederWatch monitor bird populations in and around fire areas. Anyone can help Lab researchers monitor bird populations by joining Project FeederWatch.