Notes from Four Christmas Bird Counts

(This column first appeared in the January 12, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Brief notes from four Christmas Bird Counts:

Beaver Meadow -- December 20

    Much more snow here than in Buffalo. It sparkles in the sunlight, festooning conifers like holiday garlands. Feathery flakes continue to flutter around us all day.

    Our most unusual birds are two winter finches. An evening grosbeak calls from a bare branch where three starlings attempt to mimic it. Later Tom Greg points out a pine siskin among goldfinches at a thistle feeder. It has been years since we had a major incursion of these species. When those invasions did occur, seed sales soared. Grosbeaks devoured sunflower seeds by the bushel.

    Our leader, Dave Junkin, asked us to census mammals too. We record deer, muskrat, red and gray squirrels and a fox but we miss the mink found in this section last year.

Buffalo -- December 21

    A dusting of new snow but most lawns are clear.

    We look for the mockingbird that has been seen in the vines at the Huntley Power Station. It isn't there but finally we discover the lovely gray songster. Flashing its distinctive white wing and tail patches, it flies out from around the corner of a neighborhood firehouse.

    While my partners scan the river for waterfowl, I watch a single Bonaparte's Gull. It stands on a piling peering at the nearby water and every few minutes dives down to grab and gulp a minnow. If only I had this delicate bird's ability to feed so voraciously without gaining weight.

Iroquois -- December 27

    A clear cold morning.

    I drive out the feeder road across the wetlands. Investigating a familiar noise I find several hundred Canada geese with a few mallards basking contentedly on open water. They laze about, conversing noisily, but they have problems too. Undoubtedly local foxes and coyotes cull a few less alert members from their flock each night.

    A harrier glides silently over the cattails looking for its favorite prey: mice.

    Farther north I come upon a small flock of birds: nuthatches, chickadees, waxwings, woodpeckers including a lone red-bellied woodpecker. A warbler joins them but I get only fleeting views of it before it flits off again. I record it as a yellow-rumped warbler, the species we most often find here in winter, but then I begin to question my observation. This bird's markings were more like those of an American redstart. I search for it for a half hour unsuccessfully. (No luck when I return the next day either.) Why does this kind of experience only happen when I am alone and have no one with whom to compare observations?

Chestnut Ridge -- January 4

    Mike Galas and I endure an all day drizzle.

    Unexpectedly our 7:20 starting time provides us an hour of gloomy dark. The taped call of a screech owl attracts no birds until finally at about 8:30 a few curious chickadees respond.

    With all this rain Cattaraugus Creek has become a wild river overflowing its banks in several places. The black ducks we saw here last year are wisely long gone.

    Most of our birds are found at feeders. Among them are a purple finch and many tufted titmice. After last year's harsh winter and spring I expected the number of titmice -- recent immigrants from the south -- to decline sharply.

    A big bird dashes across the road just ahead of our car: a wild turkey, its long narrow neck leading that giant round body over frantically churning legs. Despite its odd proportions it is, I think, a very attractive bird.

    Four great excuses to spend wonderful days out-of-doors no matter what the weather.