Wednesday, December 17, 2008

109th Christmas Bird Count

Yesterday I participated in the Christmas Bird Count for our area. It was the thirteenth year it's been held here, but the Christmas Bird Count as a whole has been going 109 years, starting in 1900. Back in those days, there weren't many bird watchers, but there were a lot of bird hunters. In an effort to stop the annihilation of hundreds (or thousands) of birds every year just for sport, Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History proposed an idea. Instead of the "side hunt," where people took sides and saw which side could shoot more birds at Christmas, people would count birds instead.

The idea took hold, and the Audubon Society took over the Christmas Bird Count. Today it is held in 22 countries in the Western Hemisphere.  The count is conducted within a 15-mile radius circle on one day between December 14 and January 5. 

We didn't have a big turnout for our Christmas Bird Count, so I had a large area to cover.  Some years we have quite a few people turn out, both experienced birders and those new to birding. Those that are new are paired with someone more experienced, so they end up learning a lot about birds. I know I was a bit cautious the first year I did my first Christmas Bird Count. My thoughts went somewhere along the lines of:

A whole day looking at birds? 
It's winter, I don't see birds. 
It's going to be really boring.

But I was pleasantly surprised. When you concentrate on birds, you end up seeing them in more places than you would expect. And the day has gone by surprisingly fast every year. 

Some of the birds can be obvious, like the raptor perched on the power pole above. The white speckled V on the scapulars (shoulder feathers) helps to identify this as a red-tailed hawk, the most common roadside buteo. Other raptors I saw included a second red-tailed hawk, a rough-legged hawk, a golden eagle, and a merlin.

Some of the birds are quite small, not much bigger than this sunflower seed head. The gold head along with the black and white wing feathers make this bird easy to distinguish as an American goldfinch. A flock darted along ahead of me as I went along the edge of a field. I enjoyed seeing the flash of their golden heads.

Here's the goldfinch eating the sunflower seed head. Other birds that were common in the fields and feed lots were ravens, blackbirds, white-crowned sparrows, and European starlings.

Later, as I stopped next to the road to look at a marshy area, I saw a flash of blue in a tree. The blue made me think of pinyon jays, because we have a lot of those. But when I got out the binoculars and looked closer, I saw it wasn't a pinyon jay.

Instead, the bird was a bit smaller. The male was brighter blue and the female (on the left) was greyer. This blue bird turned out to be a mountain bluebird.

Yesterday was a really cold day. In the morning it was only 14 deg F, and the highest it got was 31 deg F. As a result, most bodies of water were frozen over, including this big lake. That meant the lake, which is usually a great birding spot, was not too exciting. Nevertheless, I managed to find a loggerhead shrike and a black-billed magpie near it.

Not too far away I found this open water. Why isn't it frozen over? The water emerges from a deep spring, and the water is warm enough that it stays unfrozen for a long distance. Out on the water I could see little blobs, mostly brown, but in the center one white blob.

With more magnification, I found my most exciting find of the day: a bird that wasn't on our list--a tundra swan. It might not look very swanlike here because it has its head tucked into its back. Fourteen green-winged teals, about a dozen mallards, and a few northern pintails were also present. At another open-water area I spotted a belted kingfisher and a great blue heron. It amazes me how much variety exists even in the desert.

After I had searched the valley bottom, I headed up a couple of the canyons. In one I found a flock of wild turkeys. They ran across in front of me and up the canyon side. Dark-eyed juncos were all fluffed out and chirping quietly as they tried to stay warm in leafless bushes.

As I got up higher in the mountains, it started snowing. I didn't see many birds, but finally something flew across the road. I got out and started walking.

A flock of mountain chickadees was darting around the pinyon pines, with a couple red-breasted nuthatches hanging out with them. A little later I found a Townsend's solitaire. During the winter it often makes a piercing whistle call that is unmistakable.

Wintertime is when huge flocks of birds gather near the roadsides. They fly up in front of vehicles and it's difficult to see what they are. Here I captured them alongside the road, and it's possible to see the yellow chin and dark mask and chest band, although the "horns" that give the horned lark their name aren't really distinguishable.

Hopefully these photos and descriptions have whetted your appetite for birds! If you'd like to learn more, and possibly participate in a Christmas Bird Count near you house (remember, the counts are held until January 5), check out the Christmas Bird Count website! Happy birding!


flatbow said...

ah, this brings back memories of you listening to the audio cd of bird calls... over and over and over.

That is quite an impressive range of bird species living in that area. Hmmm, wonder what will happen to the bird diversity if all the water is taken away?

eped said...

some great finds! I was glad to see a bunch of waxwings making their way through the other day. If anyone's interested, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is having thier national count in a couple months: February 13th-16th, 2009

The Incredible Woody said...

Beautiful - thanks for taking us along! I would never have imagined a heron in the desert!

Caroline said...

That was a very tweet blog!!
Again I must say that you lead the most interesting life. I'm sure the bird appriciate being counted instead of shot at! Whew!!


Desert Survivor said...

I forgot to mention that at the end of the day we did a little tally of what everyone had found and ended up with 50 species of birds. One of the other exciting finds of the day were some Bohemian waxwings. But the really exciting find was when a lady came upon a recently dead bull elk--killed by a mountain lion. She didn't hang around there long!

big hair envy said...

When I was little, my grandmother always had her Bird Guide handy. We would watch the feeders outside, and try to identify any new or interesting bird we saw.

As an adult, I HAD to have a Bird Guide. It's been wonderful to be able to identify the birds at my place by their color or call. (Owls can be tricky!) Last Saturday, there were three Blue Jays and a Woodpecker fighting over the same tree. I LOVED it!!!

Uncle Tom said...

The Loggerhead Shrike sighting has me a bit envious. It's been ages since I've seen one. I've seen lots of Northern Shrike lately, but no Loggerheads.

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