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Snowshoeing for Birds

For twenty-five years I have gone out on foot to count both bird species and numbers for the annual Christmas Bird Count, popularly known as the CBC. But last December was a first for me. I did the CBC on snowshoes!

I was thrilled by the deep snow and cold weather that had started with a three-inch snow on December 4, followed by six inches on December 9, and another six inches on December 16. It was going to be an old-fashioned winter, or so I thought. I brought my snowshoes down from the attic and went out the day before the CBC to check on the male eastern towhee I had found on Greenbrier Trail during previous scouting trips.

Breaking trail was difficult because the snow was wet and heavy. Still, I persisted, and for my effort I heard and saw a winter wren. Then American crows erupted noisily over Laurel Ridge as they harassed a red-tailed hawk and a pair of ravens joined in the fracas.

But I was intent on relocating the towhee. Never before had we had a towhee on our CBC. I could hear him calling below Greenbrier Trail and pished him up from his cover. What a view I had of the striking black, white, and rusty-red bird against the snow-shrouded landscape.

Later I talked strategy with our oldest son Steve. He was planning to cover that part of our property, along with our friend, Todd Davis, who he was introducing to the joys of the CBC. Carefully I described where I had seen the towhee. I also instructed him to search along Ten Springs Trail for the hermit thrush and yellow-bellied sapsucker I had found there on December 14. After several years of conducting our CBC on my own, I was pleased (and relieved) that Steve–a crack birder–would be helping out. After all, I wasn’t getting any younger.

Ever since the beginning of the CBC, back in 1900, Pennsylvanians have participated. The brain child of ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, who was distressed by the Christmas “Side Hunt” by the gentry, when teams competed to see which one could kill the largest number of wild creatures, both furred and feathered, Chapman decided to hold a Christmas Bird Census instead.

On December 25, 1900 27 enthusiastic birders conducted 25 counts from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California. But Pennsylvania, with five, had the most counts of any state or Canadian province–in Germantown, Wyncote, Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, Neshaminy Creek and the Upper Delaware River, and the Delaware River Meadows in Tinicum Township. Altogether participants counted 18,500 individual birds and 90 species, including such familiar birds as brown creepers, hairy, downy, and red-bellied woodpeckers, American goldfinches, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches and ruffed grouse.

As editor of Bird-Lore magazine and an early officer in the budding National Audubon Society, Chapman spread the word about his Christmas Bird Census, which later morphed into the Christmas Bird Count. Over the years, birdwatching became more popular and bird guides more sophisticated. This gave the CBC tremendous momentum. Sponsored by the National Audubon Society (NAS), the CBC now attracts more than 50,000 participants across the Western Hemisphere. They conduct approximately 2054 counts and record on average 61,461,000 birds. In Pennsylvania alone there are 66 counts–from Erie and Pittsburgh in the west to Scranton and West Chester in the east, but only Wyncote retains its count name from 1900.

Although most CBC participants are in it because they appreciate birds and enjoy the friendly competition, the more than a century of data they have contributed about the long-term health and status of early winter bird populations across North America has helped scientists and bird conservation. For instance, in the 1980s, scientists used CBC data to document the declining winter population of black ducks. This led to conservation measures that reduced hunting pressure on the species. And dozens of research papers using CBC data include such topics as bluebird abundance, the differential sex distribution of wintering diving ducks, woodpecker abundance, and North American merlin populations.

Each count covers a pre-determined circle 15 miles in diameter. Once a circle area is officially accepted by the NAS, it remains the same every year. The NAS also determines the “count period,” usually between December 14 and January 5, and the count compiler for each circle picks one day within that period as the count day. Normally our compiler chooses the earliest possible Saturday, before folks are tied up with Christmas festivities, and she reasons that there may be more stray migrants lingering in our area, such as my eastern towhee and hermit thrush.

In 2005, Heidi Boyle, our local Juniata Valley Audubon Society compiler, had chosen December 17 to hold our CBC. Centered on Culp in nearby Sinking Valley, our count circle includes our property.

When our son Dave and I set out that winter morning, light clouds obscured the rising sun’s golden light over Laurel Ridge and a gibbous moon hung above Sapsucker Ridge. Although Dave claims he is no birder, he has learned the winter birds, and he had graciously agreed to break trail for me. But while I was in pursuit of birds, he was in pursuit of animal tracks to photograph.

With the thermometer at 18 degrees Fahrenheit, the snow crunched loudly beneath our snowshoes, so we had to stop often to listen. At first it was silent as we followed Butterfly Loop along the top edge of First Field, but eventually Dave flushed two dark-eyed juncos and a song sparrow from the previous January’s ice storm-fallen trees. White-throated sparrows, more juncos, and a couple of displaying male downy woodpeckers at the base of a tree added both numbers and species to my count.

Then, as Dave pushed us up into the brush near the powerline right-of-way, a ruffed grouse erupted from its snowy cover. In the wild grapevines beside the right-of-way, a red-bellied woodpecker and a pair of pileated woodpeckers foraged while a common raven “cronked” overhead.

We stopped to admire the sundogs bracketing the sun and scared up a pair of Carolina wrens as we continued snowshoeing along the edge of First Field. That same area, a week before, had held every possible woodpecker in doubles, triplets, and more–northern flickers, red-bellied, pileated, downy and hairy woodpeckers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Instead of woodpeckers, though, two black bears rose in front of us on the slope and lumbered up over the hill, moving more slowly than usual because of the deep snow.

“Come look,” Dave called down to me after he had snowshoed up to where we had first seen the bears to photograph their tracks. Under an uprooted tree, the mother bear had dug a den, but since we had come too close, we doubted whether she would return. She was probably the same bear I had seen back in early fall with a single, large cub below the Far Field Road. Surely, we joked, no one else would have two black bears on their CBC list.

Once the bears disappeared, birds appeared–a male northern cardinal, dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, and blue jays. As we neared the spruce grove, I heard golden-crowned kinglets and pished up two. Six eastern bluebirds flew up along the Far Field Road. We also heard another pileated woodpecker.

After two and a half leisurely hours, we reached Coyote Bench under a bright sun in a winter-blue sky, which was studded with fluffy clouds that sailed along in the spanking breeze. We snowshoed on to the Far Field and thicket but didn’t find many birds. By then I was tired and snowshoed slowly back to the edge of the field, feeling discouraged. A swirling of black birds into trees along the far edge of the field raised my spirits. Although not much of a sighting for valley dwellers, the 150 more or less of European starlings were unusual at that time of year for our mountain property.

We snowshoed back on Sapsucker Ridge Trail. Dave veered off to the edge of the ridge in search of new species while I plodded on, cutting my own trail through the deep snow, to the spruce grove where we had agreed to meet. Dave had not seen one bird, but I had added three more cardinals to our count.

The town factory blew its noon whistle and, intent on lunch, we snowshoed swiftly down First Field Trail, neither hearing nor seeing any birds. While we had been gone, my husband Bruce had had his own adventure. Asked to watch the feeders for our resident red-breasted nuthatch, which he had quickly spotted, he then watched a sharp-shinned hawk harry prey from the juniper tree next to our house, grab a junco, take it to the edge of the woods, hold it down while the bird struggled, and pluck and eat it. We arrived in time to see the sharpie, still sitting on the ground at the edge of the woods, finishing off the remains of the bird.

Meanwhile, son Steve and friend Todd had been scouring the other end of the mountain, most specifically the old clearcut, and had found the towhee and hermit thrush but not the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Steve was most excited about the close-up view he had had of a golden eagle flying down Sapsucker Ridge. For him it was a walk down Memory Lane because he had seen a golden eagle here, back on December 16, 1989, during a CBC with his brother Mark. But memory is part of what the CBC is all about. Like hunters who recount tales of past years, we recall our past CBCs and the birds we saw. And we pass on the tradition. On the same day we were counting here, our youngest son Mark and his daughter Eva, who live in Mississippi, were participating in a CBC that he had helped to start the previous year.

After lunch Steve persuaded me to walk down the road with him, but when we reached the last hill, he proposed going down to the bottom and ranging out to a pond and nearby village. I bailed out, because I was tired, and during my walk back up the road, I counted several winter wrens that poked in and around the stream debris.

Then, as I walked past our shed on the road, I glimpsed a movement out of the corner of my eye. A white-throated sparrow flew against the window pane. I went into the shed and rescued it, a surprising, but fitting end to a bird-filled day.

Altogether, we “bagged” 32 species, having missed only the yellow-bellied sapsucker and red-tailed hawk I had seen on previous days. But we always miss a few species that we know are on the mountain. That’s part of our Christmas Bird Count tradition.

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For an account of the 2006 CBC on the mountain, see here.

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