Thursday, December 29, 2005

Counting Birds

Tuesday I participated in the Belleville CBC (Christmas bird count), organized by the Quinte Field Naturalists. It was my second time out, and what a difference from last year.

Last year the temperature when I left the house was -18C, the high that day was about -10C. There was some wind blowing in our faces for the trail portion of the event (a hike of about 3 hours). And for the first hour or so, almost no birds at all were so foolish as to be up and about in those temperatures. But we did see birds that day, 18 species plus a bonus of a flock 300-400 snow buntings in a field just outside our count area.

This year the temperature was just below 0C when we started, and rose to just a little above. (This has been the temperature around here for the last several days.) It was cloudy, but there was no rain or snow, and the sun broke through in the afternoon.

We started out slow: a few birds at feeders on the drive to the trail we would hike, but then things got better with the spotting of the first northern shrike--sitting high in a tree, at some distance away. Then a second, a little further along, flew into an apple tree, and out again with a piece of apple. After that it stayed with us for several minutes flying to one spot and then another on the sides of the trail, giving us some excellent views. One of the other counters and I got pictures. I think his were probably better. One of mine confirms the sighting (the other was entirely out of focus), but is way overexposed for reasons unknown to me.

Tracks in the snow on the trail included squirrel, rabbit, muskrat, deer, coyote, and one of the larger members of the weasel family, small otter or mink maybe.

After the trail we got into one of the cars headed back to the others for lunch, then headed out for the driving portion of the count in one car. Last year there were just two of us--so only one watcher during the drive. This year with four I think we saw more birds more safely.

We did finally see a red-tailed hawk, just as we were beginning to despair of being able to count at least one of these normally ubiquitous raptors. But we never saw any wild turkeys, although I did have a flock of these guys fly across a road behind me on the drive down to meet the group (and that's one weird sight to see in your rearview mirror!). Towards the end of the afternoon I think it was me who cried "stop" for some robins hanging out by some apple and sumac trees. We saw that they were indeed robins--first time for us that day--first time for me since much earlier in the season--a good bird to count. We got out of the car for a better look when another in the group cried "bluebird!" And indeed there were, five eastern bluebirds, possibly a family group, as there seemed to be only one mature male. They weren't with the robins (who left soon after we arrived), but were presumably attracted to the spot by the same food source. As we watched they flew down, one or two at a time, to eat the fuzzy, red fruit of the sumac. Mourning doves were the most numerous of the birds we saw, and in the bit of coverage remaining we counted many more--then the last bird added to the list, a flock of 50 snow buntings!

Not a good shot either--but you might be able to make out that this is indeed an eastern bluebird

I've learned since Tuesday that the Belleville count area is a circle with a radius of 12 kilometres and its centre at the Belleville city hall (front steps). Nuthatch of Bootstrap Analysis wrote this week of an interesting tool available from Google that can be used to create precise mappings of CBC areas, describing how to go about this--all you need to know is the centre point (well, you also need broadband and a newer operating system than Win98). I think you also probably need a club (like the Quinte Naturalists, not like a baseball bat). I'd like there to be a count that includes Thomasburg some year, but it takes organization to get people out to cover the area on the appointed day. Something to think about though--isn't it Peter? No hermit thrush so far in the count (see species list below), but a sighting might come in as a count period sighting--any species identified in the circle between Dec 24 and Dec 30. These birds aren't counted, but their presence is noted. I won't hear for a little while what the final species list is.

I'd recommend this to any birder--even if you have to travel a little to find a count. It's an excellent time of year to take a whole day off and do some birding.

Preliminary List of Species in the Belleville Count
(species found in my team's area in bold)
Canada Goose
American Black Duck
Common Goldeneye
Wild Turkey
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper’s Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Eastern Screech Owl
Great Horned Owl
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Snow Bunting
Northern Cardinal
Pine Grosbeak
House Finch
Common Redpoll
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow


Rurality said...

We used to see shrikes fairly regularly, but now I can't remember the last time I saw one.

I took a birding class once and the teacher called them "Mockingbirds gone bad"!

Pamela Martin said...

Yes, I can see that. Something that interests me is how the other birds can recognize this particular songbird as one to watch out for.