Five 2012 Christmas Counts


(This 1139th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 20, 2013.)


My first Christmas Bird Count was in 1939. Although that was long ago, I recall that December morning as if it were yesterday. One of Rochester's finest field ornithologists, Howard Miller, allowed me, a pre-teen beginning birder, to join him on a visit to Tryon Park at the south end of Irondequoit Bay.


It was a dreary day, the sky overcast and the temperature in the 40s. There was significant snow cover, but it was melting and every breath of wind brought a shower of cold drops, some of which inevitably found their way inside my coat collar.


Our species list that morning was not long, probably less than twenty, but one episode made up for that brevity. A loud whistle greeted us from the woods and Howard imitated it. "Watch carefully now," he warned me and, no sooner had he said that when a bright male cardinal flew up to pose for us. At that time the cardinal was still a rare species this far north and ours may have been the only one on that count.


Times have changed. This year I participated in five Christmas Bird Counts and we saw cardinals on all of them, a total of 80.


But much has also stayed the same. These carefully organized midwinter counts give birders a chance to contribute small-scale information to an annual national survey of the status of birds. Tens of thousands of birders participate across North America.


They also provide an opportunity for friends to get out to see how their list this year will compare with what they saw in earlier years.


I found the CBCs in 2012 especially interesting. The first two, the Wilson-Lake Plains count on December 15 and the Buffalo count the next day were both taken before we had any significant snowfall. By the time of the other three, Oak Orchard on December 28, Hamburg-East Aurora on the 29th and Beaver Meadow on the 30th, almost a foot of snow was on the ground.


The snow made the experience very different: those first two extended the snowless trend that began with the counts the previous year. Walking through it when it did come was not easy. On the Oak Orchard count I sank into a deep drift and Charles Mitchell had to pull me out.


With snow blanketing fields where many species normally feed on weed seeds, birds were drawn to feeders and to plowed roadsides. Birds need grit in their crops to grind what they eat and they pick that up along roads in winter, especially where sanding trucks have passed.


But the species totals were little affected by the differing conditions. Our total species counts ranged from 28 in Buffalo to 33 in Beaver Meadow, all quite consistent with those of previous years.


The real differences occurred between counts. Our overall total was 57 species, almost double the individual counts and that had little to do with snow.


Only our Buffalo count includes open water and the Niagara River gave us species not seen elsewhere: gadwall, hooded mergansers, double-crested cormorants, and 1100 Bonaparte's gulls.


Each count had its unique contributions. Wilson-Lake Plains: Cooper's hawk, Northern flicker, Eastern bluebird, and two rare hoary redpolls. Remarkably our only wild turkeys were on the Buffalo count as was Eastern mockingbird. Oak Orchard: ring-necked pheasant, American kestrel and red-winged blackbird. East Aurora: our only screech owl, belted kingfisher, yellow-bellied sapsucker and pileated woodpecker. And Beaver Meadow: mute swan, Northern harrier, rough-legged hawk, common raven, Lapland longspur and purple finch.


Some species were recorded on only two of the five counts: great blue heron, ring-billed gull, brown creeper, Carolina wren, golden-crowned kinglet, American robin, song sparrow, common redpoll and pine siskin.


And as is always the case we missed several species that we often record: sharp-shinned hawk, Northern shrike, ruby-crowned kinglet, cedar waxwing and swamp sparrow.


Easily our "best" birds were the two hoary redpolls that Mike Galas and Ron Hacker found feeding at roadside. "They were so close," Ron told me, "I could almost have reached out the car window and touched them."


Ours were only small additions to each of those larger counts. Others saw many more species, but we came away satisfied with our contributions.-- Gerry Rising