Super Bowl Reflections

It wasn’t so much that the Seahawks beat the Broncos by 35 points that was so impressive, it was that they seemed to win every play. We’ll never know how much the errant snap and resulting safety on the game’s opening play determined the day’s course of events. Confidence is often the decisive factor in a sporting event, and it is hard to maintain a high level of confidence when you mess up your first play so badly. The next time the Broncos got the ball, their runners were swarmed at or near the line of scrimmage; they weren’t tackled by one Seahawk, there were three on hand, which spoke to how dominant their defensive line was. The fact that Seattle had trouble scoring touchdowns was initially cause for worry, but then the defense took care of that, as well, intercepting and taking a Manning pass to the house.

If the Broncos were the best the NFL could come up with to oppose the Seahawks – and, indeed, they were the favored team – does the Super Bowl portend a Seattle dynasty? Their best players are all young, quarterback Russell Wilson will surely get even better and their best offensive threat, Percy Harvin, hardly even played this year. It’s possible, but the NFL is not kind to potential dynasties. Injuries, salary caps and the annual influx of possible game-changers through the draft all work against them. Even more to the point is the difficulty Seattle had in even reaching the Super Bowl this year. If Kaepernick’s pass to Crabtree had been one foot higher, the 49ers would have played for the title, not the Seahawks. And that game was played in Seattle. In fact, if there is one lesson to take away from the Super Bowl for next year, it is probably that the Broncos will not be back, and may have trouble even making the playoffs. The AFC was decidedly the weaker division this year, but even so, Peyton Manning started to look old and, after the best statistical year a quarterback has ever had, has only one direction to go in.

Despite the non-competitive nature of the game, I stayed to the end, as did most of America. Why? For me, it was simply to marvel at the excellence of the Seahawks. Watching a team play its absolute best  in the most important game of the year is a satisfying sight. And it was fun to learn the players and see who would make the next big play. And, unfortunately,  must say it was somewhat gratifying to watch Manning’s difficult night. He has been so good for so long that one need not feel sorry for him. And, frankly, the way he audibles at the line on each play is rather annoying. He’s been good, but Russell Wilson, let alone Colin Kaepernick, is more fun to watch.


A Tale of Two Sparrows

The annual Christmas Bird Counts in Santa Barbara County are serious affairs, almost too serious for me to have enjoyed participation in the past. This year (2013) I took part in two counts – Cachuma and Santa Barbara – and found myself more involved than I ever expected.
I accompanied Joan and Bill Murdoch to their allotted territory on Happy Canyon Road, on the side of Figueroa Mountain, for the Cachuma count December 27. The birding was slow, very slow: we struggled to pull hermit thrushes and wrentits out of the bushes. Finally, as the road pulled alongside the creek, we heard some chips and we fanned out, mostly in search of the fox sparrows that had been advertised in the area.
Looking across the creek bank, I saw a fox sparrow dropping down to drink or bathe, then another, then another. Although they skittered about, I decided I had seen six in all, when another, smaller sparrow appeared in their midst, at the top of the bank. It had black on its face, very unusual for a sparrow, and a prominent white eye ring, also unusual. I had no idea what it could be – it was a bird I’d never seen, so far as I could remember – but I didn’t think, given the black face and white eye ring, that there could be many possibilities. I called for Bill, who was downstream, but by the time he got to me, a fox sparrow had chased my bird off.
Back in the car, looking through my Sibley bird guide, Bill suggested a sage sparrow, and I readily agreed. The pose chosen to illustrate the bird, leaning forward with raised tail, was exactly the pose I had seen, and the listed size, one inch shorter than the fox sparrow, meshed with my observation. I didn’t know how rare this sighting would be, but the fact that Bill had suggested the species made me comfortable with the identification.
The rest of our day was largely uneventful, except for the pair of rufous-crowned sparrows that Bill spotted, perched in a bush. The sage sparrow, we thought, would be our main contribution. Because it was unusual, Joan asked me to document my sighting; so I sent her a narrative, much like what I’ve written here. The count leader was appreciative, and apparently my sighting was unusual enough that he sent me an official Audubon count form, in which I had to detail where I was, what binoculars I used, how I made the identification and other matters.
This was my first encounter with CBC officialdom, and it didn’t go well. The leader apparently reported to a committee, and after consultation, they decided not to “submit” my sage sparrow. The fact that I was a single observer – no one else in my party saw it – played a large role; I suspect the fact that no one the committee had ever heard of me also mattered. I didn’t really care, one way or the other, although I was slightly miffed at the “official” reasons for the rejection, which made no sense and which I duly rebutted, just for the record.
(Since then, I have looked up the sage sparrow on my Audubon bird app: the third photo looks exactly like the bird I saw.)
A few days later, January 4, Santa Barbara held its count, and I had been volunteered to scour the Westmont College campus in Montecito. I didn’t expect to find any unusual birds in this suburban setting, an expectation confirmed on a scouting trip two days ahead of the count. Still, it gave me a reason to walk the pretty campus, and if I contributed numbers of birds, even common ones, to the count, it would, presumably, serve some purpose.
Arriving at 8, I staked out a spot at the top of the campus, above a small creek bed, and watched a small flurry of sparrows, towhees and wrens. To my surprise, a white-throated sparrow, in beautiful plumage, stepped out from a group of golden-crowned sparrows. It was one of my childhood favorites, and I hadn’t seen one in Santa Barbara before. I worked my way down campus, seeing birds that were fun, if not rare: Townsend’s warbler, lesser goldfinch, even a trio of mallards on an ornamental pond.
As I was heading back from the bottom of campus I came across a flock of juncos, just below the tennis courts. Mixed in was a smaller bird, nondescript brown with a striped cap. “Chipping sparrow,” I instinctively thought, as it had a remnant chestnut cap, but it had no other particular markings and, again, I couldn’t remember having seen chipping sparrows in Santa Barbara. I was debating whether to count it in my report – was I certain? – when I spotted a Hutton’s vireo on a woodpile behind the junco flock. As I have only recently learned to distinguish the vireo from a ruby-crowned kinglet, I thought, why press my luck: two less-than-100% sightings at my last stop might be too much. And besides, the vireo gave me a round 30 species on the morning.
Back home, I called count leader Joan Lentz, who had requested a before-noon report. “Anything unusual?,” she casually asked. Equally casually – I didn’t know what would be considered “unusual” – I said, “Well, I did see a white-throated sparrow and a chipping sparrow, which I don’t normally see.” She sounded pleased by the white-throat report, mentioning that her group had “missed” this bird that day.
To my surprise, however, that turned out not to be the lead story. Other counters had also found the white-throated sparrow, but mine was the only chipping sparrow seen by anybody. Thus, again, please tell us more – where exactly did you see it and how did you identify it? (No Audubon form this time.) Joan said she was inclined to accept my sighting – mainly because chipping sparrows had been seen in years past on the Westmont campus, although never since the disruption of the Tea Fire in 2009 and subsequent construction activity.
Whether my single-observer sighting would have stood on its own, however, I’ll never know, because the following day I received an email from Joan: “Congratulations! I went to Westmont today and I refound your chipping sparrow. It was in a flock of juncos between the tennis courts.” Thus, because of my participation, the Santa Barbara CBC for 2013 stands at 222 species, not 221.