Clellie Lynch: Christmas Count, 2015


EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> This late fall has been unusually warm and sunny. The lawns are still quite greenish, rivers are flowing, lakes and ponds are open. Are many birds lingering amid the plentiful food supply? We shall see. The day arrives for the 116th Annual Audubon Christmas Count.

Just before sunrise, Danny is checking the weather so we can decide what to wear. As predicted the balmy temperatures have plummeted to below freezing. We pack up food, don layers of clothing in hopes that we can remove one or two as we warm up walking around our quadrant, and, just in case, toss heavier coats, scarves and hats into the car if the weather worsens.

Participants across the country, in Alaska, in Canada and Mexico will count the birds in their designated quadrants during this two-week count period. Every year, data is collected from specified areas and added to the ever-growing database that enables ornithologists to study population and distribution trends.

As usual, five intrepid teams gather around sunrise to do the 2015 Central Berkshire Count. We join our leader, Tom Collins, and head for the hills.

Off we go to the Housatonic Wildlife Management Area (WMA). We park and start the count. The temperature hovers near 30 degrees, but with the constant wind it feels much colder. Ten goldfinches flit across the sky calling "potato chip, potato chip."

"Hawk!" cries Danny. We all turn and watch as this bird is joined by a second. We tick off red-tailed hawk.

Walking through the field, we hear and see a few chickadees, more goldfinches and white-breasted nuthatches. A red-breasted calls! Then, a pair of small birds lands near the top of a tree dripping with catkins. We all peer and crane until finally a male redpoll comes into focus. They are joined by a third. An excellent pick-up!

The walk along the road gives us cardinals, blue jays and woodpeckers: Pileated, downy, hairy and red-bellied. A flicker shrieks from within the pines. A study of a mixed flock hopping from road to bush gives us more goldfinches, chickadees and 21 purple finches. Eleven cedar waxwings land in the leafless tree in front of us. Back along the tarred road, we find an unprecedented eight ravens, in trees, on the ground, in the air.

As we head into the northern portion of the WMA near the river along the road, a catbird calls! He hops up from within the shrubbery, shows himself, calls again and then disappears into the maroonish tangle of branches. Another nice pick-up!

Off to Noble Farm. As we enter, Tom sees a sharp-shinned hawk zoom in. We find it and all of us are able to watch for a few minutes before he is out hunting again, being blown hither and thither by the wind.

We drive highways and byways and find a few more birds including a Cooper's hawk. Eighteen rock pigeons, absent from the farm, line the wires at the Housatonic WMA. Four black ducks fly over.

At Laurel Lake we hit the mother lode: Canada geese everywhere, mallards galore, black ducks aplenty. We observe one hooded merganser, one common merganser, two ringed billed gulls and another two ravens. By the end of the day, we have 35 species, higher than the last two years: 2013 — 28 species, 2014 — 27 species.

As daylight fades, we head into Pittsfield to join the other teams for drinks, dinner and the count up. The usual suspects, pink-faced from the wind and a wee bit tired, have settled in, some already a little fortified and revived. Tom Tyning tells us of the great horned owl in our territory and cedes it to our count. Tick!

Bob Wood and Holly Higinbotham, the Count chairs, are ready to record. Though we had little luck with finding ducks, the other teams report three green winged-teal, a pair of gadwall, a pair of wood duck and a tetrad of common goldeneyes. Gallinaceous birds were few and far between: one ringed-neck pheasant, one ruffed grouse and only two turkeys, all of which are count saves. A count save is one in which only one team observes that species.

Reading through the compiled list, I see that there were more than 15 count saves. In addition to the above mentioned, there were single sightings of great blue heron, rough-legged hawk, great black-backed gull, herring gull, a flotilla of coot, belted kingfisher and grackle. Plus our five saves: sharp-shinned hawk, redpoll, catbird, flicker and pileated woodpecker. Not that birders are competitive.

In all the 31 "citizen science volunteers" saw a total of 53 species, three species fewer than 2014 but eight more than 2013. Like every day when we are out and about birding, this was a great day!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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