Monday, December 20, 2010

Counting the birds for Christmas

Yesterday I participated in the Audubon's 111th Christmas Bird Count. It was the 44th Christmas Bird Count held in Boise.

The Christmas Bird Count is an important long term study of bird populations across the country. Since it has amassed such a large data set, it has been a critical resource for assessing bird populations and distributions over time. This makes it the most significant citizen science project currently underway.

In communities across the country, volunteers spend an entire day counting every bird they can find. The count is restricted to a 7.5 mile radius from a chosen central point. The Boise count is centered in the Idaho State Capital. About 30 people showed up at 7am on a Sunday morning under snowy skies and nasty roads. The "count circle" was divided by the organizers into a number of sections. I paired up with two other volunteers I didn't know and headed out into the snow surveying a section of NW Boise. It's a great way to meet new people.

The skies lightened up a little bit around sunrise providing a great start to the counting. Hundreds of Canada Geese, American Wigeons, and of course the ever present invasive European Starlings. The species racked up quickly. About an hour into the count, Sue's car died. Dead battery. We flagged down some help to get a jump start, but we definitely needed to move on to plan B. We retreated to Gary's house so he could borrow his son's car. Unfortunately Sue had to leave us for the day.

Gary and I headed to Dry Creek Cemetery. Lots of bird action here - Cedar Waxwings, Red-Breasted Nuthatchs, Cooper's Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and then I found a Varied Thrush. The Varied Thrush is a great bird to find! Dang, my camera was back in the car. I went to get it, but the thrush was gone when I returned. The lighting wasn't too great for photos anyway.

Cedar Waxwing.

Cedar Waxwing.

Adult Cooper's Hawk (maybe second year).

Next up was Hidden Springs. Only about half of Hidden Springs is within the count circle. We had to check it out as some rare birds had been seen there is previous weeks. No rare birds, but we did get some good species such as Western Screech Owl and Great Horned Owl. The snow started again, somewhat mixed with rain. Along Pierce Park we found a life bird for me, a Northern Shrike. In fact we found two! This was a great find for the count.

Northern Shrike.

In a particular group of trees, I thought I had heard a Northern Pygmy Owl. We searched and searched, even played their call on an ipod. No response. Then I saw a Townsend's Solitaire. Gary played the solitaire's call and that was it. It's very close to the quality of an owl. I realized I had never heard their call. The pygmy owl would have been a great bird, but so is the solitaire.

Moving back into the Boise neighborhoods, the rain slowly picked up and visibility dropped. We continued counting, but the new species declined. I had to leave at 3:30, so Gary continued on his own. When I left him we had counted 40 species for the day and thousands of individual birds. I won't have the totals of the whole Boise count circle for a few more days, but I expect the number of species to be near normal, which is usually around 80 species.

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