San Mateo County, California
Origins of the Crystal Springs Christmas Bird Count
by Jennifer Rycenga
The Crystal Spring Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is among the highlights of the yearly avian calendar for San Mateo County birders. Sequoia Audubon's website boasts how "the Crystal Springs CBC is one of the top counts in the country, consistently placing in the top 10 in terms of number of species seen." The count circle is based around the Crystal Springs watershed, but its 15-mile diameter encompasses the mud flats of Foster City, suburban oases and canals, the oak woodlands of the foothills, mixed redwood forests along Skyline, and into Half Moon Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The spectacular habitat diversity in this capacious bay-to-sea circle sets the table for countdown dinners stuffed with eager anticipation and gaudy total numbers. So how did we get this lucky, to inherit the most deftly-designed circle in the nation? The story is a tad older than Sequoia Audubon itself!
The draftsman behind this sensational circle was a young man named Jim Rigby (1909-1953), who worked for a helicopter company as a technical illustrator. He hailed originally from Media, Pennsylvania in the Philadelphia area, where he and his older brother Ted had been admitted as Fellows of the prestigious Delaware Valley Ornithological Club (DVOC). Their passion for bird records, even before the full advent of what we now call "Community Science" (aka Citizen Science), is evident in an article on waterfowl distribution and population in their hometown of Media, that they published in the DVOC journal in 1945. One of Jim's friends, an early President of Sequoia Audubon, Neil Richardson, recalled that Jim was a "birder par excellence" whose "knack of knowing where and when to locate the unusual...was uncanny" (The Sequoia 28:8 (April 1979):8-10).
After World War II, Jim worked for a few years in the Bay Area; here he also volunteered as a field trip leader with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society (SCVAS). Sometime in 1948 he "mapped out" the Crystal Springs circle, and enthusiastically brought his idea to the membership of SCVAS. Realizing that this new area "should furnish a spectacular bird count," SCVAS agreed to hold that season's Christmas Bird Count in this new San Mateo circle (SCVAS newsletter, December 1948).
Thus, the first-ever Crystal Springs CBC was held on January 2, 1949 – the same year when Sequoia Audubon would fledge into its own organization! But that was all in the future when the intrepid team of twenty-three observers in seven teams headed out into a blustery cold day. The weather, combined with lack of familiarity with the territory, yielded what seems to us now to be a low count total of 112 species. Among rarities, the parties tallied an overwintering Snow Goose (Blue form), Tundra Swan (then known as Whistling Swan), a Rock Wren, and a Long-tailed Duck. A number of species were clearly more abundant at that time than they are now: 25 Lark Sparrows, 2 Rufous-crowned Sparrows, 15 Horned Lark, and 6 Loggerhead Shrike.
Jim Rigby knew that the circle had potential far beyond this first effort. In his report to National Audubon, for instance, he took care to indicate the exact percentages of broad habitats:
|"open salt water of bay and ocean||15%|
|tidal salt marsh||10%|
|exposed mud flats||5%|
|lawns and shrubbery||10%|
|fresh water lakes||10%|
|farm and grazing land||15%|
|forested canyons and ridges||10%|
Yet despite this promise, the count would not be repeated for quite a few years. "Santa Clara Valley Audubon abandoned the Crystal Springs count" as "their hearts were not really in the project, especially when Jim returned to Pennsylvania about 1950" (The Sequoia 28:8 (April 1979): 8-10).
It took seven years before the second Crystal Springs CBC happened, on January 2, 1956. With the clear understanding that Jim Rigby had drawn "a dandy when he picked the Crystal Springs Christmas Count circle" (The Sequoia 28:8 (June 1979):9) two of Sequoia Audubon's best birders were ready to pick up the challenge. Neil Dickinson and Jed McClellan made a bold prediction: "Though we are beginners we should be able to make a creditable showing in such a rich field" (December 1955 newsletter). They were right. The Crystal Springs CBC has been held every year since. Looking across the first fifteen years of this CBC under the auspices of Sequoia Audubon, and breaking it into five-year spans, the species count average grew from 130 to 150 to 160! Dickinson analyzed this as a "gestation time while expertise grows and accumulates and familiarity with the terrain of the circle and its potential develops" (June 1979, 8).
With his fortuitous blend of birding instincts, technical draftsman's skills, and an engineer's attention to detail, Jim Rigby had seen the potential for a splendid CBC in San Mateo county. His tragically young demise means he didn't get to see the promise develop. But "Jim's faith in the Crystal Springs circle has been well vindicated" (The Sequoia 28:8 (April 1979):8-10). Some years we've reached over 200 species in this circle. New birding areas have been discovered, explored, and documented. Possible range expansions and contractions are charted, and gradual changes in regional distribution have been made trackable through this rich data set.
Give a passing thought to Jim Rigby when you participate in the count this year. His life demonstrates how sometimes when we make what seems to be a small contribution to an organization like Sequoia – leading a field trip, directing a CBC – the impact can end up being broader than we dare to imagine. May the continued camaraderie, success, joys, rarities, and community-science spawned by the Crystal Springs Counts serve as an ongoing monument to Jim's memory.
Finding a photograph of Jim Rigby was a challenge, but the fine record-keeping by the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club came to the rescue. Two friends of Sequoia Audubon in Philadelphia – Holly Merker and George Armistead, who are current DVOC Fellows – made inquiries with their club's archivist, Bert Filemyr. He shared a group photo from the 1948 Annual meeting of the Fellows of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club, reproduced below. Jim sits next to his brother Ted Rigby on the far left-hand side of the second row from the front. Many thanks to Bert, Holly and George for their assistance.
Jim and Ted Rigby, with 1948's winner of the human Grumpy Cat award in front of them
The full contingent of white men at the 1948 DVOC meeting [source]
Thanks to Bert Filemyr, Holly Fulton, and George Armistead for guiding me to this picture.
The map of the Crystal Springs Count, shows the genius of Jim Rigby's insight into birding possibilities. Here is the full descriptor from the Sequoia website in 2021: "The Crystal Springs CBC is one of the top counts in the country, consistently placing in the top 10 in terms of number of species seen. The count circle is centered on the Peninsula and includes the Burlingame shoreline to Redwood Shores on the Bayside and southern Pacifica through Half Moon Bay on the Coastside with the Crystal Spring Watershed, Skyline Boulevard, and the suburbs in between."
Note – DVOC, SCVAS and SAS have digitized their old newsletters, which is a real boon to ornithology researchers!