Christmas Bird Counts


(This 982nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 17, 2010.)



Eastern Bluebird photo by Glenn Clark


On December 25, 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman of New York City's American Museum of Natural History organized a few friends across the United States to record birds on that day instead of shooting them as had been done on Christmas bird hunting contests.


That year 25 counters recorded birds in 27 areas. The idea of Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) took hold and over the recent holidays about 60,000 birders took the field to count in 15-mile diameter circles on a single day during the assigned three-week period. On the Niagara Frontier birders participate in a dozen of these counts. I joined five and share with you some of our experiences.


December 19, Wilson-Lake Plains. A perfect day for birding: partially overcast skies, temperatures in the 30s, little snow on the ground. Our 29 species included a Northern shrike, an uncommon winter visitor to this region and a first time sighting for Kyle Horton. (I am convinced that experienced birders get as much pleasure introducing a friend to a new species than they get adding a bird to their own life list.)


Shrikes are interesting birds. They share with our hawks and owls their hooked bill and appetite for flesh, but they belong to the same songbird order as robins, cardinals and goldfinches, species it preys upon. The one we found was typically perched on the topmost twig of a tall tree, its black mask marking it for the desperado it is.


A large flock of snow buntings flew back and forth over a farm field, treating us to their snowflake-like appearance. Watching these lovely birds is one of my favorite natural history experiences. When they finally landed we picked out a few horned larks among them.


When we stopped to watch four bluebirds resting atop a house, the homeowner came out to see what we were doing. We told him we were counting birds. Satisfied, he asked if we had seen anything interesting. We pointed to the bluebirds. "What bluebirds?" he asked, but he walked back up his driveway without even a glance at these handsome birds. We drove off shaking our heads.


Birders on this count meet for lunch and, as we pulled into the restaurant parking lot, we were treated to a view of a pileated woodpecker flying overhead.


December 20, Buffalo. Here we learned once again how a single location that is often unproductive can turn into a bonanza. From a short path behind houses along Tonawanda Creek we observed a mixed flock that included flickers, chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, titmice, Carolina wrens, cardinals, juncos and five sparrow species: tree, song, swamp, white-throated and fox. The previous year we only found a few chickadees there.


We ended our day in the White Chapel Memorial Park on Niagara Falls Boulevard, where we added our last species in one of the pine groves: a half dozen cute little red-breasted nuthatches. Our count total: 37.


December 26, East Aurora. An unpleasant day. The continuous rain made us do most of our observing through car windows. Despite this we counted 25 species.


This is always a pleasant count as many homeowners come out to share birding experiences with us, one in his shirtsleeves. He finally returned to his house drenched.


An interesting feature of our count area south of the village is the species we miss. This is a mixed suburban-rural section and there are farms but we never find rock pigeons there. This year we counted only one starling and we missed our usual Carolina wrens.


December 27, Oak Orchard. What a change from yesterday. Bright sun through most of the morning. Lakes iced in but two great blue herons explored a frozen marsh. Mostly common birds on this count but Horton found a brown creeper. 29 species.


January 2, Beaver Meadow, 25 species. Cold and snowy, icy roads, but quite a bit of bird activity. Two redpolls and a single pine siskin were our best birds but there were many other feeder birds: 49 jays, 42 chickadees, 18 titmice, 7 white-breasted nuthatches, 46 juncos, 17 cardinals, and 20 tree sparrows. Among these were two white-throated sparrows and a single red-breasted nuthatch.


Our overall total: 53 species, not bad for mid-winter inland counts.-- Gerry Rising