Monday, December 19, 2011

Two Decades Plus of Counting Christmas Birds

I participated in my twenty-second Audubon Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, and it was  mediocre by all accounts.  Our group of 10 birders, most of whom wandered the fields and forests for four hours from 8 a.m. until noon, recorded only 38 species.  (One intrepid birder went out for three hours beginning at 3 a.m. to log owls, and came up with six Eastern Screech Owls but no Great Horned Owls, which were spotted here in two locations earlier in the week.)  On "good" count days in the past, we've recorded 50 or more overwintering species.
I've participated in this annual event every year since 1998, with the exception of 2009 when the region was in the early throes of one of the largest blizzards on record.  Most of the regular participants couldn't have counted even if they had been so inclined because they couldn't get out of their driveways let alone negotiate the impassible roads.  Nevertheless, the count must go on; our group adds our results to those of a second group that counts in the southern part of our watershed, and we report the combined results to Audubon as the count for the entire valley.  The other group somehow went out during the 2009 blizzard and reported--not unexpectedly--very poor results.  The other group is Audubon's "official" contact for the valley and so "calls the shots"; and they are very inflexible with their scheduling.  The count can be conducted any time over a two week period centered on Christmas, so I don't understand why they didn't reschedule the count in 2009.
Our "best" birds yesterday?  Six American Coots, 15 Eastern Bluebirds, and 26 Chipping Sparrows.  Such a large aggregation of Chipping Sparrows is very unusual this far north in the winter.
Why the Northern Mockingbirds hang around
The first half of the count, from 8 until 10 a.m., was so beautiful I was glad that I got out of bed early on a weekend to go outdoors.  The very low, very late autumn sun burnished the native grasslands a rich, deep golden hue.  And the sun provided enough warmth to allow us to occasionally remove our gloves to record the birds (or take photographs) with bare hands.  (During most counts, the weather is so cold that it would be foolhardy to remove gloves.  I vividly recall the 1990 count during which we had to retreat to the warmth of one of the count participant's kitchen for hot chocolate or risk serious frostbite.)  By 10 a.m., though, thick clouds rolled in from the northwest, the sun disappeared, and the day got cold.  We even had brief snow flurries in mid-afternoon.

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