My first Christmas Bird Count was in 1939. I recall that December morning as if it were yesterday. One of Rochester’s finest field ornithologists, Howard Miller, allowed me, a preteen birder, to join him on a visit to Tryon Park at the south end of Irondequoit Bay.
Our species list that morning was not long, probably less than 20, but one episode made up for that brevity. A loud whistle greeted us from the woods and Howard imitated it. “Watch carefully now,” he advised, and, no sooner had he said that when a bright male cardinal flew up to pose for us. At that time the cardinal was still a rare species this far north and ours may have been the only one on that count.
Times have changed. This year, I participated in five Christmas Bird Counts and we saw cardinals on all of them, a total of 80.
But much has also stayed the same. These carefully organized midwinter counts give birders a chance to contribute small-scale information to an annual national survey of the status of birds. Tens of thousands of birders participate across North America.
The counts also provide an opportunity for friends to get out to see how their list this year will compare with what they saw in earlier years.
I found the counts in 2012 especially interesting. The first two, the Wilson-Lake Plains count on Dec. 15 and the Buffalo count the next day, were both taken before we had any significant snowfall. By the time of the other three, Oak Orchard on Dec. 28, Hamburg-East Aurora on Dec. 29 and Beaver Meadow on Dec. 30, almost a foot of snow was on the ground. Walking through it was not easy. On the Oak Orchard count, I sank into a deep drift and Charles Mitchell had to pull me out.
With snow blanketing fields where many species normally feed on weed seeds, birds were drawn to feeders and to plowed roadsides. Birds need grit in their crops to grind what they eat, and they pick that up along roads in winter, especially where sanding trucks have passed.
But the species totals were little affected by the differing conditions. Our total species counts ranged from 28 in Buffalo to 33 in Beaver Meadow, all quite consistent with those of previous years. The real differences occurred between counts. Our overall total was 57 species, almost double the individual counts, and that had little to do with snow. Each count had its unique contributions.
Only our Buffalo count includes open water, and the Niagara River gave us species not seen elsewhere: gadwall, hooded mergansers, double-crested cormorants and 1,100 Bonaparte’s gulls. Remarkably our only wild turkeys were on the Buffalo count, as was Eastern mockingbird.
Wilson-Lake Plains: Cooper’s hawk, Northern flicker, Eastern bluebird and two rare hoary redpolls.
Oak Orchard: ring-necked pheasant, American kestrel and red-winged blackbird.
East Aurora: our only screech owl, belted kingfisher, yellow-bellied sapsucker and pileated woodpecker.
And Beaver Meadow: mute swan, Northern harrier, rough-legged hawk, common raven, Lapland longspur and purple finch.
Some species were recorded on only two of the counts: great blue heron, ring-billed gull, brown creeper, Carolina wren, golden-crowned kinglet, American robin, song sparrow, common redpoll and pine siskin.
As is always the case, we missed several species that we often record: sharp-shinned hawk, Northern shrike, ruby-crowned kinglet, cedar waxwing and swamp sparrow. Easily our “best” birds were the two hoary redpolls that Mike Galas and Ron Hacker found feeding at roadside.