By Dave Hicks
The TAS Christmas Count was held on December 31, 2016, as part of the National Audubon Society’s 117th count. The count was highly successful despite high winds, with a record number of 71 species sighted (plus one hybrid). The highest previous species numbers were 68 in 2009 and 2012, and the long-term average (from 1976 on) is 58.6. The number of individual birds seen was not a record, however; at 8041, it was considerably less than the long-term average of 10,495. Despite the record number of species, no new species were found this year. Some species have been seen only a handful of times on previous TAS Christmas Counts, namely Horned Grebe, Northern Shoveler, Turkey Vulture, Osprey and Hermit Thrush.
Twenty-seven participants turned out to count, the largest number since the 1980s. Thank you to Margit Codispoti, Al Crist, Beth Deimling, Steve Doud, Alex Forsythe, Pardee Gunter, Tai Gunter, Toshiko Gunter, Lila Hammer, Steve Hammer, Dave Hicks, Deb Hustin, Lana Jarrett, Casey Jones, Jennifer Jones, John Kendall, Cliff Kindy, Arlene Kindy, John Komorowski, Dee Moore, Stan Moore, Melissa Paar, Andrew Pawuk, Connie Pickett, Dan Pickett, Jim Townsend and Nathaniel Wise. It was great to welcome several new counters to the group.
This is the fortieth TAS count for which we have data. (There were a couple of counts in the nineties that couldn’t be held because of weather). This is therefore a good point to summarize some trends over the years. Although the number of counters this year was the greatest in a long time, the long-term trend is downward, as is the number of individual birds counted. However, the number of species has trended upwards (though not quite significantly) despite the smaller number of observers. It is interesting to speculate why this might be. Have we collectively learned the good spots to find birding spots in our count circle? Or are we seeing an influx of species due to a warming climate?
One of the best parts of the count is the fun of finding unexpected species. Andrew Pawuk said, “Turning west off of SR 15 onto 600 N, John Komorowski and I slowly began driving and scanning the fields for birds. Just over the first rise in the road a large flock of what appeared to be European Starlings began flying from north to south over 600 N. As we drove closer towards the flock that was now streaming in multiple dozens over the country road, John exclaimed, “SNOW BUNTINGS!” The white feathers on the underparts gave away the flock’s real identity. For my brother-in-law and me, this was by far the largest flock of Snow Buntings we had ever seen in our lifetimes; at least 300 flew right over our car and in front of us as they landed just over a rise in the field.” Deb Hustin found an unusual species in an unusual location. “The count day was cold and blustery. We were counting the usual winter mixed flock of black-brown-grey birds including woodpeckers, tufted titmice, chickadees and nuthatches. They were joined by two Golden-crowned Kinglets, hugging the brush about knee height – our best view of kinglets in a long time.”
Sometimes a second look pays off, even close to home, as Dan and Connie Pickett found. “In our territory for the Christmas count we are fortunate enough to have active Bald Eagle and Osprey nests. On that very windy morning we were not seeing too many songbirds, so we decided to stake out those two nest sites. At the Eagle nest we did not see any of the birds, but counted three checking out the waterfowl buffet on the north shore of Winona lake. Then we went to the Osprey nest in hope of a sighting. We must have sat observing the nest for about 20 minutes with no luck, so decided to go home and eat some lunch. As we got out of the car at home (west shore of Winona Lake), to our joy and excitement an Osprey flew from over the partially frozen lake to right over our house! So who was staking out who?” It’s always hard to anticipate the best sites to check out, as Casey Jones noted: “We spent a couple hours walking around natural areas greater than 40 acres, or so, only to find the most species diversity at a quarter-acre boat launch on Chapman Lake.”
Steve Doud and Alex Forsythe used some tech tools to draw out birds. Steve says, “While I don’t condone excessive bird song playing in the field, our best sightings were the result of targeted iPod use for secretive passerines in specific habitats. We had both singing Swamp Sparrow and Winter Wren in a frozen cattail area on upper Tippe; no idea how they make a living there in winter. At a wooded marsh on south end, a Carolina Wren put in an appearance, but didn’t have much to say. While trying for Screech Owl (unsuccessfully) near the country club, a mixed flock of small birds mobbed the tape, including a Hermit Thrush, which put on quite a display. Alex was able to get killer photos of all these birds. She has developed the ability to use photography as primary ID, in lieu of other optics, while I still depend on real time binoc use. Makes a good combination.”
Enjoying a day birding with friends is always a high point of the count, as Jim Townsend said. “I have probably been on as many bird counts as anyone. What stands out to me is just getting to know the other people with me on the counts. Whether it is just one other person or a full car with four of us, it is a great time to spend with friends both old and new.”
Pied-Billed Grebe 52 Horned Grebe 1 Ruddy Duck 1 Mute Swan 123 Tundra Swan 7 Canada Goose 1682 Gadwall 3 Mallard 601 Mallard hybrid 1 American Black Duck 4 Northern Shoveler 2 Canvasback 12 Redhead 39 Ring-Necked Duck 135 Lesser Scaup 16 Common Goldeneye 109 Bufflehead 22 Hooded Merganser 85 Great Blue Heron 2 Turkey Vulture 4 Osprey 1 Bald Eagle 3 Sharp-Shinned Hawk 4 Cooper's Hawk 3 Red-Tailed Hawk 30 Rough-Legged Hawk 1 American Kestrel 14 Wild Turkey 32 American Coot 2028 Ring-Billed Gull 208 Herring Gull 92 Rock Pigeon 131 Mourning Dove 49 Eastern Screech Owl 1 Barred Owl 1 Belted Kingfisher 5 Red-Headed Woodpecker 3 Red-Bellied Woodpecker 37 Downy Woodpecker 64 Hairy Woodpecker 10 Northern Flicker 13 Pileated Woodpecker 7 Blue Jay 63 American Crow 254 Cedar Waxwing 45 Eastern Bluebird 68 American Robin 60 Hermit Thrush 1 European Starling 519 White-Breasted Nuthatch 52 Brown Creeper 9 Carolina Wren 2 Winter Wren 1 Golden-Crowned Kinglet 2 Black-Capped Chickadee 62 Tufted Titmouse 55 Horned Lark 103 House Sparrow 410 American Goldfinch 48 Purple Finch 6 House Finch 72 Snow Bunting 300 Song Sparrow 7 Swamp Sparrow 4 White-Crowned Sparrow 5 White-Throated Sparrow 2 Dark-Eyed Junco 98 American Tree Sparrow 73 Northern Cardinal 61 Red-Winged Blackbird 18 Common Grackle 1 Brown-Headed Cowbird 2