By Jeffrey Reed
What was my favorite sighting of the day during the 70th annual St. Bonaventure Audubon Christmas Count that was held on Dec. 15? That’s easy, it was the waitress placing the gigantic breakfast burger and french fries down in front of me when we gathered for the post-count tally.
A full 1,300 calories of all the things we’re not supposed to eat couldn’t have looked or tasted any better to me after being outside all day in the wind and snow.
And the truth is, I like being outside on days like that. The way I see it if we’re going to have winter, then let’s have wind, snow, temperatures in the 20s and cold fingers. It may not be the best conditions for seeing birds — and it wasn’t — but that’s the way it goes.
Generally, the St. Bonaventure Audubon Christmas Count is a group of approximately 10 people counting birds in a circle that is centered on St. Bonaventure University. As a group, we set a somewhat arbitrary goal of 50 species, which is easy to hit in May but very difficult in December. Personally, I set a goal for myself of 20 different species on the day — and even that can be challenging.
Curiously, the day started really well for me. I got to Olean Point around sunrise and quickly checked off common goldeneye, bufflehead, common merganser, hooded merganser, mallard and American black duck. There were also a few Canada geese, a few European starlings and a sharp-shinned hawk so I had nine species before I even got started.
I then left the river for more wooded areas to locate the songbirds that I thought would get me to 15 species fairly quickly, including blue jay, cardinal, mourning dove, junco, chickadee and house sparrow, but I was wrong about getting them quickly.
As I walked the Allegheny River Valley Trail, Gargoyle Road and the dikes along the Allegheny River, trying to find any sign of a bird, it got to the point where I had to remind myself that there are Christmas Counts in Alaska, where the only bird seen all day is a raven. It wasn’t quite that bad here but it was 3:30 p.m. before I added cardinal and pushing 4 p.m. before I added mourning dove and, for the first time ever, I failed to see a chickadee or a house sparrow.
The day wasn’t without its moments as I did see a single ring-billed gull that I almost missed because it blended in so well with the falling snow and gray skies. Conversely, a passing raven couldn’t be missed as it flew overhead, surveying all that was his, the way ravens do.
A particularly memorable moment came when I was walking in the woods below the dikes and flushed a flock of at least 25 mourning doves. The whistling sound that their wings make when they take flight filled the air even as the wind and snow seemed to get stronger.
Bald eagle is generally seen by at least one of the people counting and I was on the lookout when a large bird with a white tail flew away from me into the falling snow. I was fairly confident it was a bald eagle, and then clinched the identification a short time later when I saw the bird perched. Even though the bird had a white tail, its breast was almost completely white indicating it was not yet an adult.
By the time I had counted my 20th bird species on the day I was beat from having walked through the snow all day, but the hardest part came somewhat later when I had to decide whether to get the french fries with the breakfast burger or go with the healthier option of the cup of soup!
It was also at that time that the other counters began coming in and to a person they agreed that this was the most challenging Christmas Count anyone could remember. Songbirds seemed to have cleared out this winter and so far very few birds have arrived from the north, although there was one report of an American tree sparrow. When all was said and done, we’d managed only 34 species on the day.
In between bites of the breakfast burger and french fries I spoke with Mike DeSha who is the outgoing president of the New York State Ornithological Association (NYSOA) and also counts in one of the areas north of the city of Olean.
January 2020 marks the start of the third Breeding Bird Atlas project and Mike was telling me how it came together. As one of the largest citizen science projects of its kind, the Breeding Bird Atlas project gives everyone the opportunity to contribute important data to help map the distribution of breeding birds in New York state. But unlike the last Breeding Bird Atlas project 20 years ago, this one is going to have a much larger internet reporting component with all the data being reported to ebird.org.
Basically, the state is divided into 5,710 blocks and anyone who wants to can sign up for one or more of the blocks and record bird sightings over a five-year period. Depending on the type of bird activity seen or heard, a likelihood of breeding is established. For example, if a cardinal is heard singing in your yard on one occasion, it can be recorded as a possible breeder, but if it’s heard many times over several weeks, it can be recorded as a probable breeder and if it’s seen feeding young, it’s recorded as a confirmed breeder.
One thing that is different for this Atlas is that “priority” blocks have been established, and even though I haven’t taken a super-close look at the block map, it looks as though most of the places that I typically bird are not in any of the priority blocks. But Mike said that they’re looking for data from any and all blocks, not just the priority blocks.
So, beginning Jan. 1, birders all across the state will begin signing up for blocks. Admittedly, most birds aren’t breeding in January, but some of the owls will be, so if you want to see the block map you can go to https://lab.nynhp.org/bba/ and zoom in, but if you just want to know more about the Atlas you can go to https://ebird.org/atlasny/about.
For the record, I finished the breakfast burger and french fries — but I passed on dessert.
Images of some of the birds mentioned here can be seen at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/meadowsteward/.