Mid-Winter Birding


(This 1243rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 18, 2015.)


Bird watching in winter is different from the same activity at other times of the year. In other seasons you can find with little effort fifty to one hundred species; on many winter days you have to spend hours in the field trudging through snow, facing into harsh winds and bundled up against low wind chills just to accumulate a list of twenty.


And some of the birds on that list of twenty you would pay no attention to in other seasons. Find an individual grackle in winter and you get excited. There is a saying among listers: the first grackle you see each year is the only one to which you pay any attention. But it is the unusual aspect of its remaining here when its cohorts are south basking along the Gulf of Mexico that lends this individual special attention.


The holiday season is the time for the annual Audubon Society-sponsored Christmas Counts and this sends thousands of birders out to census birds in designated fifteen mile-diameter circles on one day counts. This year I participated in four of those counts: Buffalo, Wilson, East Aurora and Oak Orchard. I had to miss Beaver Meadow because it was scheduled on the same day as Wilson this year.


All those counts were scheduled before the end of 2014. The period in which counts can be scheduled extends into the New Year, but none were locally. And if you recall the weather, this was an accommodation for birders as ours were all held during that very mild period between the infamous early Storm and the turn back to more usual winter weather of the New Year's Day holiday.


I'll share with you some of my experiences on this year's counts, but first, I should point out for those unfamiliar with these so-called CBCs that it is impossible to count every bird in one of these circles. There are over 113,000 acres in a single count region: so the 20-40 birders who spend a day there can only sample the birds. The circles are subdivided into 8-10 smaller sections and teams search those sections to list "their" birds. A compiler then accumulates those records and provides Audubon with the count totals.


The historical data provided by these counts gives a kind of annual snapshot of the birds of the United States and now international regions as well. A few, like Frank Chapman's initial CBCs in 1900, have been run for over 100 years. The Buffalo count has accumulated data since about 1930. This data provides some important comparisons among species populations but birders, whose role in that science is miniscule, pay little attention to that important aspect of their ventures into the field. They are out to record numbers of species for a day as a kind of social activity.


So let us set out together on a count like those of this year. In what follows I create a kind of melange of all the trips in which I participated.


Our group drives into the count region just as dawn is breaking. (Others have been out earlier owling: that is, projecting owl-like calls and listening for answers. They often find screech and great horned owls and sometimes even saw-whet owls.)


Our first birds are almost always crows. And our list is started.  These corvids must leave their roost in Forest Lawn Cemetery well before dawn.


Much of what we do is check feeders as birds accumulate there. At one stop we hit the jackpot: chickadees, both nuthatches, titmice, both kinglets and a Carolina wren. Along Tonawanda Creek we find a number of handsome hooded mergansers, our only waterfowl that day. In country areas we seek Northern shrikes, unsuccessfully this year but, much to our surprise, near Lockport we find four separate mockingbirds. We now record more red-bellied woodpeckers, formerly rare on these counts, than downy woodpeckers. Scott Meier records a great blue heron feeding in a frozen marsh perhaps on mice. On one count we record a Cooper's hawk, on others kestrels, red-tails and a snowy owl. We find few field birds because the open land is not snow-covered: our only roadside group a dozen white-crowned sparrows. Perhaps our best bird is the raven Mike and Sylvia Galas find at the Huntley Plant.


Slim pickings perhaps but very pleasant outings.