My first Christmas Bird Count, that is. I was not sure what to expect other than to learn how to contribute to the citizen scientist community’s annual attempt to count birds.
I laid out my clothes and gear yesterday evening including: my trusty late-season football game silks, old navy blue wool turtleneck and University of Illinois sweatshirt; boot liners and molded rubber boots; a light pair of gloves to make operating the camera and binoculars easier plus my heavy ski gloves (I don’t ski – I simply discovered the heavy-weight gloves keep my fingers toasty during my commute to work in sub-zero winter temperatures); a scarf, hat and hooded down-filled coat. Oops! :-O Did I say down-filled?! I wonder if it’s okay for birders to have down-filled anything.
This morning, I ate my hearty bowl of raisin, date and nut oatmeal in front of my living room window with the Christmas tree lights turned on as I watched my feeders. There was a lot of activity. Several Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees, American Gold Finches, House Finches, Dark-eyed Juncos, and what do you know, a Red-bellied Woodpecker, too. The first Red-belly I’d seen at my feeders this season. Then, I pulled on my coat, hat and boots, checked to make sure I had my gloves, camera and binoculars, and out I went at 7:45 a.m.
There was a healthy coating of snow overnight. The sky was overcast as the light snow continued. The temperature was in the mid-twenties and the only other vehicle I saw on the neighborhood streets was a salt truck. I could feel my clean car cringe as salt spray began to coat it. It took a half-hour to drive to the site. It’s a public park and recreation area with a couple of museums donated to the community by the wealthy family that called the estate home in previous generations. Parts of the grounds are finely manicured with formal gardens while other parts remain natural and provide a wildlife haven. A golf course adjoins the park. My local birding club has monthly walks there. I’d participated in the walks before, so it was a comfortable place for me to experience my first Christmas bird count.
As on previous walks, birders (club members and visitors alike) were greeted and signed in. Novice birders were offered the loan of binoculars if they had none. We watched birds at the feeders until our 29 birders arrived to be split into two groups. Our mission as on all previous birding club walks, was to make a list of the birds we observed. But on this Christmas Bird Count day, in addition to noting each species observed, we counted how many of each we saw. “It’s not an exact science,” our leader, Jeff, instructed. Some birds may get counted twice and some not at all. But this is being done throughout our area and all across the country. When all is said and done and averaged out, we have a picture of what species are present and in what numbers to be able to track changes and contribute to scientific observations of wild bird populations.
Out into the elements we went at 8:30 a.m. The snow continued gently falling and it was calm. Everyone marveled at how beautiful and perfect a day it was for a Christmas bird count appreciating that gray skies made it easier to see birds as we did not have to battle the sun’s rays in our eyes. Both groups headed off in the direction of one of the small museums on the grounds where a Red-headed Woodpecker was spotted a few days before. We were not disappointed. Shortly after seeing Wild Turkeys we spotted a Red-headed Woodpecker and then a second one. So, count FOUR Wild Turkeys and TWO Red-headed Woodpeckers! What a way to begin my first Christmas bird count! I had never seen a Red-headed Woodpecker before.
The groups split up, each headed by two leaders familiar with the park. One of those leaders had a clipboard and list of possible species that might be seen. My group walked along the south perimeter and our leader opened the gate allowing us on to the golf course where we continued along the fence separating the golf course from the park grounds. It should be no surprise that a bird we counted often was the Canada Goose.
We combed our part of the park until 11:30 a.m. when we returned to the visitor center to re-convene with our partner group. During the walk I enjoyed noting that the birders came in all ages from a very bird-savvy 6th grader leading her parents in the effort to novice senior citizens out on their first-ever bird walk. Oh! And I picked up some bird watcher intelligence when one of the group leaders did share knowledge of a place in the area where one might go to spot a Pileated Woodpecker that hangs out in a certain woods. I’ll let you know if I find it.
The Christmas Bird Count is a full-day into evening affair. After breaking for lunch, the count would continue on the adjoining golf course beginning at 1:00 p.m. In the evening, all the groups from our Bird Count circle (groups counting within a 15-mile radius from a given Bird Count center point) will meet at a restaurant to enjoy the camaraderie of like-minded citizen scientist friends and compare notes.
As for me, I only scheduled the morning for my participation and was rewarded to be able to add the Red-headed Woodpecker and Hairy Woodpecker to my list of never-before-seen birds. Another exciting find was our Yellow-rumped Warbler. Now that I understand how the Christmas Bird Count is organized, next year I may opt for a full day of it and include the evening revelry. As for this, my rookie Christmas Bird Count day, I’m serving baked brie and warm red Christmas wine in front of the fire with the Christmas tree lights glowing on this snowy mid-December evening.
You can read more about the Christmas Bird Count at this Audubon site.
Here’s the Official Bird Count List for our location:
1. Wild Turkey (4 individuals)
2. Cackling Goose (1) – new species for this location!
3. Canada Goose (161)
4. Ring-Billed Gull (3)
5. Mallard (30)
6. Red-Tailed Hawk (4)
7. Cooper’s Hawk (1)
8. Red-Bellied Woodpecker (11)
9. Red-Headed Woodpecker (2)
10. Downy Woodpecker (9)
11. Hairy Woodpecker (4)
12. American Crow (1)
13. Mourning Dove (10)
14. Great-Horned Owl (2)
15. Yellow-Rumped Warbler (1)
16. Blue Jay (4)
17. American Robin (23)
18. Eastern Bluebird (10)
19. Northern Cardinal (16)
20. Song Sparrow (3)
21. American Tree Sparrow (23)
22. Dark-Eyed Junco (20)
23. House Sparrow (13)
24. Pine Siskin (16)
25. American Goldfinch (28)
26. House Finch (28)
27. White-Breasted Nuthatch (12)
28. Black-Capped Chickadee (23)
29. European Starling (5)