Christmas Bird Counts


(This 877th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 13, 2008.)


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

Allan Brooks Painting of a Horned Lark


A hundred years ago social mores were different from ours today. At that time (with no TV football or Ice Bowl) it was common to hold Christmas bird shoots. Until well into the 1900s, hunters contested on the holiday to see how many wild birds they could kill -- not just game birds but songbirds as well. They often came home with sacks filled with hundreds of them.


But on December 25, 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman of New York City's American Museum of Natural History redirected a small group of friends across the United States to record bird species and numbers on that day instead of shooting them. That year 25 counters recorded birds in 27 areas.


Chapman's idea exploded on the birding scene with hundreds of additional Christmas Bird Counts added until a year ago they enlisted almost 58,000 birders. Over time and with an assist from international treaties, those annual censuses have completely replaced the Christmas bird shoots.


On the Niagara Frontier birders participate in a dozen CBCs. The counts are closely regulated by the National Audubon Society, which compiles the records. Each count is taken in a 15-mile diameter circle on a single day during the assigned three-week period. Those circles encompass a very substantial area so counters divide up responsibilities into ten to fifteen sections.


This season I joined friends on four of these counts and I share with you some of our experiences.


BUFFALO, December 16. Dire weather predictions and conditions threatened this count. We have drizzling rain, then sleet, then snow, and finally rain again. A great blue heron stands stoically on one leg next to Two Mile Creek in Tonawanda. Our best observations are at a yard full of feeders next to Ellicott Park where we found many tree sparrows, juncos and goldfinches. A lovely spruce tree nearby is "decorated" with a half dozen cardinals.


Not a pleasant day, but also not the worst CBC I have experienced. I recall one many years ago with Doug Happ that was like birding from a submarine it was raining so hard. To me CBCs represent an interaction between wildlife, recorders and weather and clearly this time weather won out. (We later learned that this count was not compiled for only the second time in over a hundred years.)


OAK ORCHARD, December 27. A much better day. Unlike our Buffalo section in Tonawanda suburbs, this one is mostly open farm country between Indian Falls and South Alabama. We visit several big dairy complexes where we sometimes find a few blackbirds among the starlings and house sparrows -- and thousands of cows. We check a pond below the escarpment only to find it almost completely ice-covered, but in a small marshy section a few mallards paddle with what at first appears to be a domestic duck. The odd bird seems intent on keeping out of view but, after several scope relocations, we make it out: it's a black duck, unexpected here.


Playing a screech owl tape in a woodlot, we are suddenly surrounded by tree sparrows and chickadees. These birds get even with their nighttime tormentors by mobbing them during daytime and we take advantage of this predilection.


Six horned larks fly across a field. Feather tufts on these sparrow-sized birds' heads give them their horned appearance and name. We formerly found birds like these together with snow buntings and Lapland longspurs feeding on fresh manure spread on farm fields for fertilizer. Unfortunately for us, most farmers have turned to liquified manure that doesn't attract birds.


NIAGARA FALLS, December 28. We check Lake Ontario from Fort Niagara. At first it appears empty, but our list soon mounts: scoters, scaup, mergansers, goldeneyes, buffleheads and long-tailed ducks -- hundreds of birds. Last year we found no birds in the woodlot behind Stella Niagara. This year we find dozens of robins, cedar waxwings, juncos, tree sparrows and woodpeckers there.


HAMBURG-EAST AURORA, December 29. Another dark and drizzly day. We're checked out by police responding to a caller worrying about "possible intruders," but they are friendly, supportive -- and amused.  Our worst count here in fifteen years, but we finish on a high note with a Carolina wren in the village cemetery.-- Gerry Rising