Bird geeks around the world recognize the 4 letters "NOGO" as the ornithology code for the Northern Goshawk. Most 4 letter codes consist of the first two letters of the first name followed by the first two letters of the last name as in NOGO for NOrthern GOshawk. Of course, it gets more complicated when two birds would result in the same code. For example, NOrthern SHoveler and NOrthern SHrike. In this case you just have to know that Northern Shoveler is NOSH and Northern Shrike is NSHR, but I degress. This story is about my mojo for finding Northern Goshawks on Christmas Bird Counts! While my sample size is quite small and would not pass statistical evaluation, I can say that I was 100% in finding NOGOs on the two Christmas Bird Counts that I worked on this year (If you don't know, the Northern Goshawk is the study species for my master's program in Raptor Biology at Boise State University).
The Audubon Society has coordinated a count of wintering bird across North America known as the Christmas Bird Count (CBC). These counts use citizen volunteers to count birds in an organized fashion within per-determined 15 mile diameter "count circles". The counts have been performed each year for more than 100 years. The result is one of the most valuable datasets in ecological research. I participated in two counts this year, the Boise CBC centered on the Idaho state capital and the Bruneau CBC centered on CJ Strike reservoir. The counts are a great way to get out and see birds, learn from more experienced birders, meet new people, contribute to that ever important dataset and most importantly of all, contribute to the conservation of these miraculous flighted species.
The Boise Idaho CBC was held on December 18th. We met early in the morning to split up the territory into separate teams and then further split up the teams into sub-teams. Due to a previous commitment I was only able to volunteer for a half day. Karyn and I, along with another graduate student, Jessie, chose a hiking trail near my house which appeared to not be covered. The days was clear and sunny.
The first part of our loop climbed through a small drainage rimmed with houses where adult and juvenile goshawks have recently been seen. As we walked up the hill, Jessie mentioned that she had never seen a goshawk in the wild. I responded, "like that adult flying up the canyon!" Awesome. The goshawk flew by at eye level before perching in a tree above a house. We were about 50 meters away as it launched off the perch, passed about 20 meters away and bombed toward some Mourning Doves. Unfortunately it came up empty. What a fantastic start to the day - summoning goshawks on demand!!
We continued our hike over the ridge and into the next drainage, where lo and behold, we would find another goshawk, this one a juvenile. These two would be the only goshawks counted during the Boise CBC. Great Horned Owls, Lesser Goldfinches, and a Hairy Woodpecker were other great finds. The three of us ended our half day with 23 species. The total for the Boise CBC effort included 48 volunteers recording 81 species. This was a great result, likely amplified by the great weather (it rained hard last year!).
Next up, on January 2nd, was the Bruneau Idaho CBC. This event is hailed as one of the most fun in Idaho due to its scale. The count is centered on a large reservoir which in winter is home to a mind-boggling number of water birds. Have you ever wondered what 25,000 Mallards looks like? Thousands of Common Goldeneye? Simply amazing! I joined up with other Idaho Bird Observatory bird nerds Jay, Heidi, and Jessica, for a fantastic outing and a number of rare birds.
First up was our portion of the reservoir. Yes, 25,000 mallards! Mixed in were Northern Pintails, American Wigeons, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Mergansers, Canada Goose, Snow Goose, and Common Goldeneye. Twelve Bald Eagles stood on the ice watching the melee. As our presence was significantly annoying the local duck hunters we moved on into the woods. The reservoir is lined with Russian Olive groves. As we walked through the groves we found 3 Barn Owls, 3 Great Horned Owls, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped Warblers, Dark-eyed Juncos, California Quail, and an unbelievable number of Northern Flickers, etc.
Next up we focused on the farming roads through the southern desert area. This wide open area is pocked with warm springs which attract unique birds. A local fish hatchery brought in the herons - 25 Great Blue Herons in the field next door. Two Loggerhead Shrikes graced our presence. They are much more rare this time of year than their relative, the Northern Shrike. The species list and the counts just kept growing.
A local hot spring ditch, very unremarkable looking, provided some of the best treats of the day. Two and maybe three Virginia Rails, Belted Kingfisher, Wilson's Snipe, Lincoln Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, and a Northern Mockingbird! Outstanding. The Lincolns and the Mockingbird are rare enough this time of year that ebird, the bird observation recording system, requires species documentation (as did the Shrike and a handful of other birds we logged!).
Next up - Blackbirds and lots of them. Over 3000 in fact. The huge flock consisting of mostly Red-winged Blackbirds was moving between trees and a recently mowed cornfield. Mixed with the Red-wings were Yellow-headed Blackbirds(rare), Brewer's Blackbirds, Brown-headed Cowbirds(rare), and the not so rare European Starling. Watching the flock were a Cooper Hawk, a Prairie Falcon, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Rough-legged Hawk. We watched as the Prairie Falcon stooped on the flock, but unfortunately came up empty. Yes, I usually root for the predator. I am an Raptor Biologist after all! We were too close to capture the whole scene in one shot.
We finished our daylight hiking through more Russian Olives. Expectedly many of the same species were found and counted, but a few new ones were in this area. The raptors were out and hunting - Sharp-shinned Hawks, Coopers Hawks, American Kestrels, AND there in front of me was a juvenile Northern Goshawk! The mojo continued! My day was complete! Not to be outdone, Heidi found a Swamp Sparrow nearby. Unfortunately I did not get to see it. It would have been a lifer. Oh well. I guess I will have to keep birding!
As the final light of the day faded I counted 1100 more blackbirds flying over in groups of 30-50 each. In the distance I could see the 25,000 Mallards taking flight as tens of thousands of Common Goldeneye returned to the reservoir for the night. Wow, Wow, Wow! Pretty cool stuff.
The Bruneau count concludes with a meet up and summary at a local restaurant. The 30 or so volunteers took over the whole place. The staff fed us family style dinner and dessert. It was fantastic as we all shared our stories of adventure and rare birds. Our group of 4 checked in with 64 species. The preliminary total count included 91 species. My only life bird of the day was a Glaucous-winged Gull which was not in our count section but was still a great rare find. I will definitely be back for this count next year!