2008 Christmas Bird Counts


(This 929th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 11, 2009.)



Pine Siskin

Photo by Martha Deed


The first Christmas Bird Count was mounted by Frank Chapman in New York City in 1900. It initiated what one ornithologist has termed "a new epoch in bird study." The activity expanded rapidly until today most birders participate in one or more such counts. In 2007 alone, 59,918 North American birders on 2113 counts tabulated 57,704,250 birds of an amazing 2267 species.


The counts are taken in designated 15-mile diameter circles on a day between mid-December and early January. Each circle encompasses 177 square miles, a significant area to census. For this reason it is usually divided into smaller territories to be covered by teams of birders.


The first of our four 2008 counts took Mike Galas and me to Wyoming County for the Beaver Meadow Count on December 20. Our section extended north from the Nature Center over thinly populated open country with a mix of farmland and woodlots.


Although Buffalo had received its first serious snowfall the night before, we could hardly have asked for better weather. The skies were overcast but occasionally dazzling sunlight reflected off the snow. There was hardly any wind. This was readily apparent because snow stood inches deep on tree limbs and the dozens of giant wind turbines we passed all stood motionless. The temperature was in the teens but a few creeks were open, some of them attracting flocks of birds. As usual on all of these counts, however, most of the birds we found were at feeders.


But not all: snow buntings and horned larks flew up from a field near where we picked up our third counter, Lewis Crowell. A dozen white-winged crossbills flew into the top of a spruce tree and were almost immediately lost to sight among the thick branches. And later we came upon a big pileated woodpecker quietly tearing apart a dead maple stump. Our totals: 763 birds of 29 species.


The Buffalo count the next day was tougher. It was a day of heavy snow and strong winds, visibility often near zero. Galas had to dig my car out of a drift at his house before we even started.


Checking the Niagara River was punishment but we recorded there a few ring-billed and Bonaparte's gulls and a single great black-backed gull, a great blue heron, a dozen mallards, a bufflehead and 15 common mergansers. The mergansers are handsome black and white ducks with thin, bright orange bills.


Before we left the river to head east, we saw our best bird. Flying toward us from the south Grand Island Bridge came a falcon. I first called it a kestrel but it immediately became obvious that it was far too big. It was one of the fierce peregrine falcons that have adopted those bridges, taking their tolls from rock pigeons and other passing birds.


Most of the rest of the day was spent observing from the car, but I did wade through knee-deep snow along Two Mile Creek to tabulate a few downy woodpeckers, chickadees, blue jays, cardinals, goldfinches, house finches and house sparrows. Our totals: 362 birds of 27 species.


Dave Friedrich and Scott Meier joined Galas and me on the Oak Orchard count the Saturday after Christmas. It started out poorly with rain, fog and a heavy overcast making our first stops in Indian Falls seem like birding at night. We soon had good luck, however, with the feeders at one home east of the village producing in addition to the expected birds four pine siskins and a single common redpoll. These and the white-crowned sparrow Meier found later were our best birds for the day. Our totals: 737 birds of 29 species.


Our count in East Aurora the next day was the most challenging in which I have ever participated. A good sign of what was to come were the gulls on the high school lawn south of town. They had retreated from the lakeshore. Smart move, because at nine o'clock a front moved in bringing winds that shook our car together with driving rain. Trees were down everywhere, at one point nearly trapping us in a cemetery. Galas and I went hours without seeing a bird but we did find 20 siskins hugging the ground under a feeder. Our totals: 176 birds of 17 species, less than half our usual count.-- Gerry Rising


We'll do better next year.