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Annual Christmas bird count seemed slow in 2018

Photo by Jeffrey Reed A kingfisher was among the author’s sightings during the annual Christmas Count in the Olean area.

Photo by Jeffrey Reed
A kingfisher was among the author’s sightings during the annual Christmas Count in the Olean area.

Photo by Jeffrey Reed A merlin was among the author’s sightings during the annual Christmas Count in the Olean area.

Photo by Jeffrey Reed
A merlin was among the author’s sightings during the annual Christmas Count in the Olean area.

By Jeffrey Reed

Have you seen any evening grosbeaks yet? If the answer is no, you’re not alone, but don’t give up hope because readers have been reporting them at their feeders and as we get deeper into the winter, we may see more of these birds irrupting from their nesting grounds in Canada.
Rob Mrowka had evening grosbeaks at his feeder as early as Nov. 22 and has had them at least twice since then while Mike Ermer from Allegany County saw evening grosbeaks eating gravel along the side of the road near the Eshelman Tract of the Pfeiffer Nature Center and there was also a report of a single female evening grosbeak at the Van Scoy’s feeder in Limestone.
Gravel is an essential part of a seed eating bird’s digestive process so it’s not unusual to see birds along the side of the road at this time of the year eating gravel and from what I can gather, the grosbeaks at feeders have been eating black oil sunflower seeds so if that’s what you’re using, keep an eye out.
For my part, I had hoped to see evening grosbeaks or common redpolls on my patch during the Audubon Christmas Count that was held Dec. 16, but I came up empty even though I was outdoors for six of the eight hours that I was counting. And even though I ended the day with 23 species of birds which exceeded my goal of 20, I agreed with the other counters when we got together for dinner that this was the slowest year in recent memory with some people getting fewer than 10 species.
It’s important to note that there’s more publicly accessible land on my patch than the others, which means I can spend most of my day walking while other people have to spend their day driving and birding from the roadside and since I have both the Olean Creek and the Allegheny River in my area I can usually hit my mark of twenty species as long as there’s no ice on the river.
Before getting to the birds that I saw or heard, it’s worth noting the birds I did not see (almost).  The week before the count I saw over 200 Canada geese on the Olean Creek but the day of the count I couldn’t find a single one until the last hour of the count when, in desperation, I checked the Olean Creek behind the Olean Times Herald building and found on the dike a single goose, which I probably would have missed if it hadn’t been honking.
Also missing were house sparrows, which are the squeaky little urban birds that can generally be found almost anywhere in the city without too much effort, but this year I didn’t see a single one. Tim Baird, who covers the village of Allegany in his section reported that he didn’t have any European starlings, which are generally as common as house sparrows, if not more so.
What struck me as I walked through the fields and woodlots near the dikes was the absence of any fruit on the honeysuckle, autumn olive and multiflora rose bushes that seem to be growing everywhere. No fruit means no food and that means no birds. Mike Ermer noticed the same thing with thornapple trees, which seemed to produce much less fruit this year than in past years, so it might be that there are just fewer overwintering birds this year.
In fact, were it not for a single bird feeder near Gargoyle Park, where I picked up red-bellied woodpecker, American goldfinch, white-throated sparrow and dark-eyed junco, I’m not sure I would have been able to make my goal.
But with no ice on the Allegheny River or the Olean Creek, I added mallard, bufflehead, common goldeneye, common merganser, hooded merganser, pied-billed grebe and belted kingfisher. I usually get bald eagle along the river but I didn’t see one this year, even though other counters did.
My most exciting bird of the day came as I was driving on North Barry Street on my way to meet the rest of the counters for dinner when I noticed a bird at the top of a tree along the dikes.  Between the overcast skies and the coming darkness, I had to walk right up to the tree before realizing that it was a merlin.
This is the second time that I’ve had merlin on the Christmas Count and both birds were in the same general area, which is close to where a pair successfully nested in 2010. Although I have no proof, it may be that the merlins are part of the reason we’re seeing fewer house sparrows and European starlings since merlins are formidable predators, using incredible bursts of speed to overtake anything with wings the size of a pigeon or smaller.
The merlin was also in the same general area where I had seen an immature red-shouldered hawk earlier in the day, and even though both birds target different types of prey, merlins are regarded as particularly bad-tempered towards other hawks so the drama would have been worth the price of admission if hostilities had broken out.
When all was said and done, the 12 people counting in the 69th St. Bonaventure Audubon Christmas Count tallied 38 species of birds, which is well below our typical 45 to 50 species.  Still, it was nice to be outdoors and it’s fun to hear what other people were seeing in their sections.
Images of some of the birds mentioned here can be seen at:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/meadowsteward

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