Christmas Bird Count

Every December I scout for birds in anticipation of the Christmas Bird Count. Last December, despite the mostly warmish and sodden weather, I spent hours searching usually “birdy” areas on our mountain and finding low numbers of even common birds.

A golden-crowned kinglet in Chester County, PA
A golden-crowned kinglet in Chester County, PA (Photo by Kelly Colgan Azar in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

One warm, foggy morning I pished up two golden-crowned kinglets and a downy woodpecker on Laurel Ridge Trail. On another warm but overcast day I startled a winter wren foraging in the midst of a fallen grapevine that had come down with a tree near the Far Field thicket. As I walked Butterfly Loop on still another overcast but breezy day, a red-tailed hawk flew over First Field.

Then the weather briefly cooled and a half inch of snow fell overnight. I sat on Alan’s Bench as it continued flurrying, before the sun appeared. Continuing on to the Far Field, I saw two song sparrows, two golden-crowned kinglets, a pileated woodpecker, and a small flock of dark-eyed juncos. That ended the first week when there were a few birds abroad.

The second week was almost bird-less with the exception of a pair of hairy woodpeckers. They appeared several times in our yard pecking at the base of the driveway black walnut tree where squirrels had left the remains of black walnut shells.

The fruit of a common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis
The fruit of a common hackberry, Celtis occidentalis (Photo by Sten Porse in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Because of the unusually wet year, wildlife food was scarce, so the feeder birds were forced to compete with an army of gray squirrels. Already most of the acorns in the forest were gone, and even the fruits of our yard hackberry trees and the nuts of our many black walnut trees were scarce.

Finally, December 15th dawned. That was the day our Juniata Valley Audubon Society had chosen to participate in the nationwide 119th Christmas Bird Count. It was 37 degrees and raining with an icy fog. Still, at first light, five gray squirrels bounded into the feeder area along with a pair of northern cardinals, one dark-eyed junco, four white-throated sparrows and a mourning dove. While I prepared breakfast, I kept an eye on our back porch feeders and as it grew lighter, a tufted titmouse appeared below the porch steps along with more squirrels. But no matter how many times I chased the squirrels, they quickly returned and kept the birds away.

At 7:43 a pair of American goldfinches and a black-capped chickadee landed on the tube feeders. Later, house finches and a white-breasted nuthatch joined them. That was after Kurt and Carl Engstrom arrived, prepared, as usual, to help count birds on the steeper, brushier section of our property. I, in the meantime, suited up and headed out the opposite direction, while my husband Bruce took up his position in front of the bow window to count feeder birds.

A song sparrow at Wildwood Lake, Harrisburg, PA
A song sparrow at Wildwood Lake, Harrisburg, PA (Photo by Henry T. McLin in Flickr, Creative Commons license

Carl had stopped to tally the sparrows in the lower section of First Field so I didn’t count them. Our “sparrow field” dripped with rain and was enshrouded in fog. Still, I saw several chickadees and at least three song sparrows and heard the calls of American tree sparrows. Many juncos popped up from the protection of dried goldenrod, but the fog prevented me frlom any distant viewing with my binoculars.

After crossing the field, I climbed up the powerline right-of-way to the top of Sapsucker Ridge but found no birds. Then I walked on to the rain-soaked vernal ponds. Still I saw no birds. Next I sat on Alan’s Bench at the top of First Field in front of the spruce grove but only heard the distant calls of American crows.

I retreated into the shelter of the spruce grove and found a pile of fresh, hair-filled bear scat. Nearby was a dead doe, her head twisted around her body that had been mostly eaten. She hadn’t been there the previous day when I had last visited the grove and I wondered if she had been killed by a bear or had been shot in rifle season and succumbed to her injuries.

A barred owl
A barred owl (Photo by Jim Oskam in Flickkr, Creative Commons license)

I sat on my hot seat within sight of the doe’s remains for half an hour and had just gotten up to resume my walk when I heard a “woo-woo,” quickly followed by a barred owl’s “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all,” uttered five times from the base of the spruce grove. As I exited the grove, I looked up at the trees and saw the owl fly from the top of one spruce tree to another. That owl, it turned out, was my one unique species contribution to our JVAS count.

It started to rain harder, but I walked on the Far Field Road almost to Coyote Bench before bagging it for the day. After all, my preliminary days searching for birds at the Far Field and the thickets beyond hadn’t netted me any rea;l sightings. Besides, despite an umbrella, my winter jacket and bug pants were soaked and trying to use binoculars while balancing an umbrella was almost impossible.

Kurt and Carl, in the meantime, had beaten their way through the underbrush up and down Sapsucker Ridge above Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails and found 19 species including two golden-crowned kinglets and a brown creeper. But their best discovery was the only eastern towhee for our JVAS count.

A dark-eyed junco on a feeder in Codorus State Park, Hanover, PA
A dark-eyed junco on a feeder in Codorus State Park, Hanover, PA (Photo by Henry T. McLin in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Including my barred owl, we had found a mere 20 species on our mountain and our 12 feeder species—one junco, two cardinals, four white-throated sparrows, two mourning doves, four tufted titmice, four black-capped chickadees, four American goldfinches, five house finches, two white-breasted nuthatches, one red-bellied woodpecker, and one song sparrow—were the same species the Engstroms picked up on foot.

But other JVAS counters scored at Canoe Creek State Park where they counted 10 common goldeneyes, 11 lesser scaup, one green-winged teal, four mallards, and a great blue heron. In addition, they found six long-tailed ducks, the highest number of this species in the 78 statewide CBCs, as well as the only blue-winged teal in state count.

In open water in other areas of our 15 mile diameter count circle, which is centered in Culp in Sinking Valley, our counters added more mallards in addition to 393 Canada geese, one gadwall, two American black ducks, 10 hybrid mallards, one northern pintail, and two buffleheads. They also counted 21 ring-necked pheasants in the valley, their other highest number in the state species—and 90 wild turkeys.

Cooper’s hawk in Gettysburg, PA
A Cooper’s hawk in Gettysburg, PA (Photo by Henry T. McLin in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Their raptor numbers were low—three Cooper’s hawks, one sharp-shinned hawk, eight red-tails, nine American kestrels, and three bald eagles. Their bonus songbird was 156 horned larks. Altogether, JVAS birders counted 62 species. As Laura Jackson wrote in The Gnatcatcher, the JVAS newsletter, it was a “dapper day of ducks,” but “the songbirds were hunkered down in the brush or hiding under evergreen branches trying to stay dry. Quick forays to bird fe ders were infrequent; very few birds braved the rain pelting from gray and gloomy skies.” I could only agree with her assessment.

Later, in July, while reading Nick Bolgiano’s comprehensive article “The 2018-19 Christmas Bird Count in Pennsylvania” in Pennsylvania Birds, the magazine of the Pennsylvania Society of Ornithology (v.33 no.1, Dec. 2018 – Feb. 2019), Bolgiano mentioned several trends that I had noted on our mountain. For the first time in our 40 years of counting, we had found no ruffed grouse. They, along with great horned owls, American crows, Carolina and black-capped chickadees and tufted titmice, are suspected to be species suffering from West Nile Virus.

Other declines, such as 40% lower numbers of dark-eyed juncos, were probably due to the cold and early snow in November, which sent the juncos farther south. Gradually declining American tree sparrows had their lowest number since 1937. On the other hand, white-throated sparrows were the most numerous sparrow species in the state. And there were record-breaking numbers of swamp sparrows.

Mallards seen during a CBC in Allegheny County, PA, in 2015
Mallards seen during a CBC in Allegheny County, PA, in 2015 (Photo by Ed McKaveney in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Many other species—mallards, American black ducks, Wilson’s snipes, northern mockingbirds, and eastern meadowlarks—continued to decline, and no American woodcocks were counted, another declining species. Still others—bald eagles, black and turkey vultures, merlins, and peregrine falcons—continue to increase. And I never would have imagined that Pennsylvania would have breeding sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans, both species that appeared on CBC counts.

Such discoveries and more were made by the citizen scientists who went abroad and counted birds on a day chosen by their group from December 14, 2018 to January 5, 2019. The Lititz count had the most species (102), and it was the first time they had recorded the highest species’ number since 1924 when they had a species count of 31! They were closely followed by Southern Bucks County (100) and Harrisburg (95) but statewide, birders found 160 species.

Since I have been a part of this effort for so many years, I plan to be out this year no matter what the weather may be, knowing that the trends in bird populations that Bolgiano has reported are only possible if large numbers of birders continue to participate in this oldest of citizen science endeavors.





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