The 114th Christmas Bird Count

Carolina Wrens by Dave Bonta

The Carolina wren pair that hung around the house in the winter of 2013-14

Last December I watched as day after day brought cold temperatures and more snow. We were expecting our son Dave’s English girlfriend, Rachel Rawlins, and her 14-year-old son, Alex, for the holidays, and Dave had already polished the sled runners.

Rachel, who lives in London, is interested in birds and arranged her schedule so she could be here for our Christmas Bird Count on December 21. It was the 114th CBC, as it’s fondly called, and is the longest running citizen science survey in the world.

Frank Chapman started the CBC back in 1900 to counter the competitive Christmas Side Hunt. On Christmas day folks chose sides, went out, and shot all the feathered and furred quarry they could find, and the team that killed the most won the competition. Chapman rounded up 17 birdwatchers from Pennsylvania to California, and suggested that they count birds instead of killing them. On that first count, five of the 25 CBCs took place in eastern Pennsylvania.

From that humble beginning, the CBC is now continent-wide with over 2300 count circles 15 miles in diameter. Ours is centered on a tiny crossroads in Sinking Valley called Culp. It includes our mountaintop property where we’ve been counting since 1979. For a long time I and one of our two birding sons—Steve or Mark—counted here. When they left home, I soldiered on alone, but a few years ago, Carl and Kurt Engstrom volunteered to cover the steep Sapsucker Ridge portion of our mountain while I covered the somewhat easier Laurel Ridge portion.

Recently, Steve and Mark moved back to the area, and Steve is now the CBC coordinator for the Juniata Valley Audubon Society count circle and is assisted by Mark. Determined to get total coverage of our circle, they have been going down to the valley to places that other members of our group are not able to count.

Rachel sunbathing on the Guest House porch

Rachel sunbathing on the Guest House porch

I figured Rachel and I would have a lovely slog through the snow, but after she and Alex had an invigorating time sledding on the 19th, they watched with us as the mountain turned from white to mostly brown under all night thaws and daytime temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit. Then rain and mist fell the evening before our CBC and into the early morning with dire predictions for the rest of the day.

The Engstroms set out by 8:00 a.m. after Carl reported four eastern bluebirds on our electric wires near the bluebird box and helped to count the meager number of feeder birds—a disappointing contrast to the huge numbers when we had seven inches of snow on the ground and temperatures had ranged in the low teens.

Undeterred by the weather, Rachel and I donned raincoats. I also carried an umbrella and kept my new “waterproof” binoculars underneath my raincoat, which did not make it easy to spot birds quickly. My so-called waterproof boots leaked as usual. Rachel, on the other hand, insisted in her British way that “layers of wool” would keep her warm and dry as did her waterproof boots and wool hat. Still, when the first deluge of rain hit us, like a cold tropical downpour, she didn’t object to sharing my umbrella through the worst of it.

The spruce grove in winter

The spruce grove in winter

Her job was to write down the bird species and numbers while I called out the identifications. At first she didn’t have much to do. We headed up to the spruce grove where I was certain we would find birds. But the birds hadn’t sought refuge there. We did instead, hoping for a cessation of the pounding rain. As we waited, we peered down into the valleys that were white with fog. At least we were above that. Those folks birding there might not fare too well. But we weren’t faring very well either, having neither seen nor heard any bird, not even on the heifer carcass staked out to attract golden eagles in front of a trail cam behind the grove.

On we sloshed to the Far Field. Still nothing.

“Are you game for a longer hike,” I asked Rachel.

Of course she was. As a British citizen, she was used to rain. Lots of rain.

We threaded our way through the trail-less woods beyond the Far Field and finally saw a downy woodpecker and northern cardinal and heard a black-capped chickadee or two.

Red-tailed hawk with vole

Red-tailed hawk with vole

From the Second Thicket, also empty of birds, we took a steep trail halfway down the mountain, stepped over a rivulet, and followed another trail through a hollow I long ago named Ruffed Grouse Hollow because I had once counted 40 ruffed grouse there on a CBC back in the early eighties. Not on this one, though. But we did find a couple of blue jays, a red-bellied woodpecker, and more cardinals and chickadees. And we heard a red-tailed hawk. Or did we? Blue jays are excellent mimics of red-tails.

“Put a question mark beside it,” I told Rachel.

All the while it rained, sometimes hard, sometimes not so hard. My shoes and socks were thoroughly soaked, but I walked fast enough that they felt reasonably warm.

A couple of times we questioned ourselves. What were a 73- and 52-year-old woman doing in this mad quest to count birds? Having fun, we assured ourselves over and over.

At last we reached the hunting lodge, and Rachel photographed the antlers hung on its back outside wall, especially one that held an old robin’s nest in its tines. After that, we took our first rest under the shelter of the porch and watched the rain. I had hoped that the hunters might have put some feeders of deer suet in their yard as they had the last time I had been there on a CBC. Then, I had been alone and in the midst of a snowstorm. But this time there was no suet or birds.

Maybe there would be birds in their autumn olive hedgerow or their cultivated fields. Nothing!

The antler nest (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

The antler nest (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Back into the forest we went in search of the upper trail. And then, at 11:00 a.m., our luck changed. A red-tail flew over even as blue jays scolded.

“Count that red-tail,” I told Rachel. “It’s probably the same one we heard earlier.”

We saw a few more chickadees, downies, and cardinals. Then we plunged into an overgrown area in search of another trail heading back toward the Second Thicket. As I floundered around, Rachel said, “Look.” She pointed up at a cluster of black birches with fruiting catkins that were twittering with American goldfinches. I counted and re-counted and searched in vain for a pine siskin. After numerous counts, I settled on 29.

Just like that we were on a minor roll. Two golden-crowned kinglets answered my pishing and not Rachel’s trilling birdsong, which was her British equivalent of our pishing. I had been hoping for kinglets and was grateful.

“Maybe we’ll see a brown creeper,” I said. “It’s difficult to tell their call from a kinglet’s.”

“Look,” Rachel said once again, this time with considerable excitement in her voice, and she described the location of what resembled the Eurasian treecreeper. Sure enough, it was a brown creeper scuttling up a tree trunk like a tree-borne mouse.

Brown Creeper by Kelly Colgan Azar

Brown Creeper (photo by Kelly Colgan Azar [license])

That ended our short bird rally, although we did add still more chickadees, downies, cardinals, and three tufted titmice to our list, all birds we could have counted at our bird feeders. I did locate one hairy woodpecker in our forest, but after five hours and four miles of slogging through the rain, we had counted a mere 11 species. We also spotted one of the bluebirds Carl had seen earlier as we approached our yard, and with other species at our feeders—white-throated, song and American tree sparrows, mourning doves, slate-colored juncos, house finches, white-breasted nuthatches, and Carolina wrens—we had a grand total of 19 species.

Marcia at the Second Thicket, 2013 CBC (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Marcia at the Second Thicket, 2013 CBC (photo by Rachel Rawlins)

Later, at the bird count dinner, no one had done much better, although Carl and Kurt had found one hermit thrush amid the grape tangles on Sapsucker Ridge and our sons Steve and Mark had spotted a rusty blackbird in a large flock of European starlings and brown-headed cowbirds down in the valley. Even though we had dedicated counters, we had one of the worse counts ever—only 43 species in all.

In other sections of Pennsylvania on other days counters did better—155 species statewide with Southern Lancaster County’s 102 species the best count in the state. Still, we know that as citizen scientists, according to the Audubon website, our counting helps protect species and their habitat and has “allowed researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.” With the CBC and other bird counts, as well as other scientifically-based studies in whatever field a person might be interested in, we amateur naturalists can make a difference.


Photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

Superflight

red-breasted nuthatch

red-breasted nuthatch (photo by Matt MacGillivray, Creative Commons Attribution licence)

It began with red-breasted nuthatches. In early August 2012, one of the largest irruptions of this northern species in living memory started with reports from counties in eastern Pennsylvania. By the end of November unprecedented numbers were recorded in all 67 counties in the state.

In late September the first purple finches arrived in Pennsylvania and 63 counties had them by late November. Common redpolls and pine siskins began appearing in early October, evening grosbeaks by the last week in October, and both white-winged and red crossbills in early November. Even a few hoary redpolls and a couple pine grosbeaks made an appearance.

With so many northern finch species moving south, birders called it a superflight, which happens only once every decade or so when food sources fail in the north, forcing most conifer seed-eating species to fly south for food. I was especially excited that red and white-winged crossbills were in Pennsylvania, because our son, Steve, had had the only sighting of white-winged crossbills on our property eating hemlock seeds here in the winter of 1985 when I was in Peru. And I had never seen red crossbills.

Now that our hemlocks are dying from woolly adelgids, we could only hope to see crossbills in our 38-year-old Norway spruce grove at the top of First Field. By the first of October several red-breasted nuthatches had already arrived there.

white-winged crossbill

white-winged crossbill (OwenMartin12, CC BY-NC)

Then, on November 15, I hiked to the spruce grove. Black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches foraged in the spruces at the base of the grove. But I heard an unfamiliar bird call and wandered through the grove searching for the source of it. Finally, I gave up, walked out of the grove and glanced back at the spruces one last time. At the top of a spruce two white-winged crossbills perched. They remained long enough for me to admire white wing bars on black wings, rosy pink breasts, heads, and backs, and even the crossed bills of two beautiful males. At last I had seen crossbills on our property.

Previously, in early November, I had had a male and then a female purple finch at our feeder area for more than a week as well as pine siskins for three days and, as it later turned out, they were the only pine siskins and purple finches to visit us during fall and winter. But already I had seen four irruptive species, and it was only mid-November.

Then a bout with Lyme disease, followed by a nasty virus, kept me inside for several weeks. It took time for me to regain my strength, and I was grateful when our Christmas Bird Count arrived on December 15, that Kurt Engstrom and his keen birder son Carl, came once again to help me. They covered the much longer and more difficult section on Sapsucker Ridge and up our road while I walked a mile and a half on Laurel Ridge.

In the spruce grove I searched for red-breasted nuthatches and white-winged crossbills, but the grove was silent. I was tired and sank down on Alan’s Bench to rest. After a short wait, I heard the call of a red-breasted nuthatch.

red crossbills

red crossbills in Long Branch, NJ (John Beetham, CC BY licence)

However, I did not recognize the call of another bird coming from the upper edge of the grove. I turned my head in that direction and spotted what appeared to be a dull-colored bird at the top of a spruce tree, continually calling, looking around, and flicking its forked tail. It had clouded over, making it difficult to distinguish any color on the bird. I kept studying it through my binoculars, and finally noticed that it had a crossed bill. When I pished, in an attempt to bring it closer, it flew away still calling.

I had listened to it for so long that the call was seared in my brain. After studying my bird guides, I was almost certain the bird had been a female red crossbill. Still, when Kurt and Carl returned, I told them what I had seen and heard. Carl didn’t say anything. He just started playing a series of calls on an Audubon Birds app on his iPod.

“That’s it,” I said.

“Number 3 type of red crossbill,” he answered. “Exactly the type of red crossbill that should be here,” he replied.

I was ecstatic. A new species—number 171—for our property and, as it turned out, the only crossbill reported on our Juniata Valley Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count. My red-breasted nuthatch was also the only one on our count.

Red crossbills live throughout the northern regions and high mountains in Europe, Asia, North America, and even the Atlas Mountains of North Africa. Here in North America ornithologists have teased out at least ten types of flight calls by red crossbills north of Mexico that some feel may be discrete species and others merely races or subspecies of red crossbills. Type 1, 2, and 10 calls were also heard in Pennsylvania, although type 3 was the most common. The calling of the lone red crossbill I saw may have been an effort to attract other red crossbills to a feeding source, according to some researchers.

Red crossbills prefer to feed on attached cones, using their feet and crossed bills like parrots to pry open the cones. Then they husk the seed coating by pressing a seed against the lateral groove opposite the side of the lower mandible tip with their tongue. Small seeds they swallow whole but crush large seeds in their bills before swallowing them.

white-winged crossbill (Jean-Guy Dallaire, CC BY-NC-ND)

Both white-winged and red crossbills have straight upper mandibles. Only the lower one curves, and while three-quarters of white-winged crossbills’ lower mandibles curve right and the other quarter left, red crossbills’ lower mandibles curve right half the time and left the other half.

Even though both crossbills eat conifer seeds, red crossbills prefer the cones of pines, including white, pitch, scrub, scotch, red, and even table mountain in our area, but they will also eat hemlock, spruce, tamarack, and occasionally the seeds of deciduous trees.

White-winged crossbills prefer the softer cones of hemlock, spruce, and tamarack, but they will also take seeds from pines with stiff cones and occasionally those of deciduous trees. Researchers claim they eat as many as 3,000 seeds a day.

While both species sometimes visit bird feeders, I never saw either one at our feeders. I had plenty of time to observe them because I no sooner had I gained my strength back in early January than I was diagnosed with a deep muscle tear in my left calf which kept me inside for nearly seven weeks. That’s when I began to refer to last winter as the winter of my discontent.

I did see at my feeders the sixth irruptive species—a male common redpoll that appeared on December 21. He or another male and a female showed up on January 3, and on January 6 and the two following days, a flock of more than 30 common redpolls blanketed the ground and feeders. The bright red forehead and black chins of both sexes and the pink breast of the male are the distinguishing features of these mostly brown-streaked birds. I never did see a hoary redpoll among them.

I similarly failed to see an evening grosbeak at our feeders, even though this species made its best showing in over a decade in Pennsylvania appearing in 33 counties.

Although most were gone from the state by mid-December, up to 150 at a time appeared at a feeder in Marienville, Forest County.

common redpolls in flight

common redpolls in flight (Jean-Guy Dallaire, CC BY-NC-ND)

Numbers of both crossbill species also diminished by mid-December. White-winged crossbills went from 43 counties in early November to 35 in the winter and red crossbills from 30 counties in early November to 20 in the winter.

During similar irruptive invasions of red crossbills in Pennsylvania, most appeared in mid-to-late October and left the state by the end of March. Although they remain paired through most of the year and may breed at any time an area suits them, there are very few verified sightings of breeding red crossbills in Pennsylvania.

White-winged crossbills arrive and leave on the same schedule as red crossbills, and there are no records of breeding here. During one of the largest crossbill invasions in Pennsylvania in 1997-98, over 1,000 white-winged crossbills spent the winter in Cook Forest State Park and were often joined by lesser numbers of red crossbills. But we never saw them on our mountain then, probably because our spruce grove was only 24 years old and not producing a good cone crop. So last winter will remain in my memory as our crossbill winter, my first ever in the 41 years I have lived on our central Pennsylvania mountaintop.

Snowy Christmas Bird Count

All over Pennsylvania, Christmas Bird Counts were being postponed or cancelled because of the weather. But the date, I thought, was set in stone.  We had to go ahead despite the snow. After all, participants in Alaska and northern Canada usually counted birds when the weather was challenging.  That’s what I told my son, Steve, who was the Christmas Bird Count Compiler for our Juniata Valley Audubon Society. Our son, Dave, who was vice president of the group, agreed.

Frank Chapman

Frank Chapman

Counting birds for science began 110 years ago when Frank Chapman, the editor of Bird-Lore, appalled by a Christmas tradition of competing to shoot as many birds and other wild creatures as possible, decided to organize folks to count birds instead.  Later, the fledgling National Audubon Society took up the cause. Ever since, growing numbers of participants have counted the numbers and species of birds on one day in a predetermined 15-mile-diameter circle. The period, set by the Society, begins before Christmas and ends a couple days after New Year’s Day. Each group that participates sends their tally to the Society.

Our property sits in a circle centered on Culp in Sinking Valley, a circle that was determined several years before we joined the local Audubon Society. Last year was my 30th CBC on our mountain. Steve and I first started back in December of 1978, when he was 14 and I was 38.  On that day, the wind howled and the snow flurried as Steve and I walked miles.  But we did get a gray catbird in the Far Field thicket.

I only missed one CBC here over the years and that was when Bruce and I joined our youngest son, Mark, also a birder, who had organized a CBC in Honduras during his stint in the Peace Corps. Off and on, as the boys came and went, they were part of the tradition.  Whenever they were all here, the CBC was our favorite part of Christmas.

The woods in a snowstorm, 2009 CBC

The woods in a snowstorm, 2009 CBC

We had had some challenging weather over the years, but last year, for the first time I could remember, we were in the midst of a snow storm.  By dawn, three inches had fallen atop a hardened layer of icy-snow from the previous week, and the weather prediction was dire. The birds (and squirrels) mobbed the feeders at daybreak, and I was kept busy counting the feeder birds and making cheese/mushroom omelets for breakfast. We doubted that our State College friend, Kurt Engstrom, and his enthusiastic, nine-year-old birding son, Carl, both of whom planned to go out with our eldest son Steve to comb the hollows on Sapsucker Ridge, would drive 25 miles in the snow. But Kurt, who is a keen hunter and fisher, was not deterred by the weather. And as soon as Carl arrived, he helped me count the feeder birds.

“A red-bellied woodpecker,” he called out.  “Twenty-seven juncos!”  “A white-breasted nuthatch!”  He was even more excited than Steve and me, and reminded me of the younger Steve who had always considered Christmas Bird Count to be almost as wonderful as Christmas.

feeder birds on black raspberry canes

Juncos, tree sparrows and a female cardinal on black raspberry canes

They headed out a half hour ahead of me — at 8:00. When I was ready to go, it took me several minutes to suit up for the 18-degree weather. Over my long underwear, I put on lined chinos and turtleneck shirt, a knit vest, hooded sweatshirt and finally a heavy, dark-blue, Woolrich winter coat that I have owned for years.  It has ample pockets for my cell phone, water bottle, notebook, pens, and tissues.  Over the hood, I wore an orange duck hunters’ hat that shielded my glasses from the snow.

My binoculars had to go underneath my jacket because they are not waterproof. Each time I saw a bird I had to unzipper my jacket before I could use the binoculars, which hindered my ability to identify birds quickly. I also pulled on my double-thick mittens.  They too had to be removed before I could focus the binocular knob and with the snow streaming down, I did miss some birds.

On my feet were my Gore-Tex lined boots that had failed to keep water out four months after I bought them, but I had on double socks that I hoped would keep my feet reasonably warm and dry. Over the boots, I pulled on my Yak-Traks to prevent me from sliding on the ice beneath the snow.  I also carried a walking stick.  That too had to be juggled when I looked at birds.

Finally, I was ready to go.

“I’ll only walk up to the spruce grove and on to the Far Field,” I told my husband, Bruce, who was in charge of Steve’s four-year-old daughter Elanor.  But just in case, I pointed out the soup I had made for the gang yesterday—a dried lima, tomato, corn and cheese soup supposedly designed for 12 cold, hungry people.

Almost immediately, I spotted a red-tailed hawk sitting on top of a power pole in the middle of First Field, his feathers ruffled by the breeze.  Getting a red-tail on such a day seemed to be a good omen.  But I walked through our deer exclosure and heard not a bird.  I plodded on up to the spruce grove, which usually held golden-crowned kinglets and black-capped chickadees, but it was empty.  Still, I stopped to admire the green boughs white with snow.  This, for me, was as much about being out in a beautiful snowstorm as it was about counting birds.  As I exited the spruce grove, I saw a dark-eyed junco and a northern cardinal.

Red-tailed hawk with meadow vole

Red-tailed hawk with meadow vole

On I went to the Far Field and circled it on Pennyroyal Trail.  I flushed two ruffed grouse and felt vindicated even as I struggled to keep my balance on the sloping trail.  Seduced by the snow, I stumbled past the barrier of fallen limbs that separated the end of the Far Field from a forest and the Second Thicket, catching and then wrenching out one of my feet from a foot-deep hole.  Maybe the thicket would hold some birds.  A couple winters ago I had found an eastern towhee in its midst.  On this day, I heard and saw only a pair of cardinals.

Drawn by the distant cry of a blue jay, I started down an old logging road on our neighbor’s property, glad to see the stream flowing from its beginning below the thicket, even though it had been shorn of its protecting trees a decade or more ago after a poor logging job.  Only brush grew haphazardly along its edges.  Still, with snow covering its wounds, it looked lovely.  I waded through the snow to take a closer look, and birds flew off in all directions.  By the time I retrieved my binoculars, only one bird remained on a distant shrub.  It was a male eastern bluebird, a prize bird for the day and weather.

I continued down the steep road, telling myself that I could always retrace my steps, but I had to get a look at Ruffed Grouse Hollow.  Three decades ago, we had counted dozens of ruffed grouse along this trail during a CBC, hence, our name for it. In that hollow tucked between two steep ridges halfway down the mountain, a small stream burbled.  The trail above the stream had recently been widened and cleared of fallen trees, and I had feared, last summer when I walked it with my granddaughter Eva, that it too would be logged.  But so far it had not been, and I appreciated especially the many mature white pines laden with snow that grew in the midst of the deciduous forest.

Ruffed grouse tracks

Ruffed grouse tracks

I heard several more blue jays and a red-bellied woodpecker.  Then I had a lovely vision of twelve American goldfinches, along with a blue jay, bathing in the stream.  Two doe plowed through the snow and up the ridge. Breaking the charmed stillness, church chimes rang out from the town several miles away in the valley, and I was reminded of the old Christmas carol “Ring Out, Wild Bells.”

By then I knew I was committed to finishing the trail, which ended at a pond at the hunting lodge.  No one was likely to be there, and maybe I could find a place to sit and get out of the snow.  I needed a rest after my three-mile walk.  A picnic table on the back porch provided almost complete protection and served as a mini-birdwatching site as more and more birds fluttered around a shrub that was draped with deer innards like a birds’ Christmas tree. A Carolina wren, several downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, dark-eyed juncos, three blue jays, two hairy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker and a white-breasted nuthatch flew in and out, calling and feeding a few feet from where I sat.  The Carolina wren even landed on the porch floor at my feet.

The snowfall thinned and then thickened again, and I was reluctant to leave this alluring place miles from the nearest habitation.  An American crow cawed, the first I had heard all day, as if to lead me onward. Regretfully, I left the porch sanctuary and walked uphill to open, windswept fields where only a dozen juncos pecked in the stubble, living up to their snowbirds’ nickname.

It was a long, hard slog back on the upper trail during which I neither saw nor heard any birds.  By that time, my arthritic feet hurt, and I was feeling my age.  Still, no pain could take away from my time outside on such a magical day.

Finally, I reached the Far Field and watched a pileated woodpecker working over a red maple tree and juncos foraging in the grasses.  On the Far Field Road, I sat down on Coyote Bench to rest before walking the final half-mile home.  At first, it was silent.  Then, I heard the call of a northern flicker.  It was bird number 17 for me and another gift this gracious day.

Grooming pileated woodpeckers

Grooming pileated woodpeckers

When I reached home, Elanor, Carl and Kurt were sledding and tobogganing with our son Dave on First Field.  Carl and Kurt had wisely returned after a couple hours and son Steve had finished his section of the mountain, had had lunch with the others, and had headed out in his car to check the town and river.  I had been gone almost six hours, walked six miles through what had become six inches of snow and was ready for a very late lunch and pot of tea.

The feeder counters had added several more species including, in Carl’s handwriting — white-brested (sic) nuthatch, cardnial (sic), goldfinh (sic), Carolina wern (sic), downy woodpecker, and blue jay — to the list I had started at dawn. His spelling may have been a little shaky, but his identifications were spot on.

Altogether, counting the feeder birds, I had 22 species.  Steve added another ten, giving us a respectable 32.  Not bad for a snowy day.  Best of all, we had introduced Carl to his first Christmas Bird Count.  May he have many, many more during his lifetime.