Birders head outside for Christmas Bird Counts
The State Journal-Register
It’s Christmas Bird Count season, and nothing will keep dedicated birders from counting as many birds as they can in a single 24-hour period.
Not cold, snow, wind or rain — even horizontal rain — can put a damper on the Christmas count tradition that is more than a century old.
Ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer in the then-new Audubon Society, started a yearly Christmas Bird Census beginning on Christmas Day 1900.
This year’s count window opened Dec. 14 and counts are scheduled across the state through Jan. 5.
The Springfield count will be held Sunday. The lakefront count in Chicago will be held on Christmas Day.
That wide window allows many birders to participate in more than one count (often several) during the time period.
On count day, volunteers count as many birds as they see and hear within a 15-mile diameter circle.
With just one day to rack up as many birds and species as possible, the weather can play a significant role.
“It was raining at dawn and raining at dusk, and it was blowing rain sideways in between,” said Dan Williams, compiler of the Rockford count held Dec. 15. “It was not a pleasant today to count birds.”
With some counters still to report in, Williams said overall results were good with more than 70 species seen in the count circle.
The Bloomington-Normal count was held on the same day, with the same weather.
“It was miserable weather,” said birder and nature photographer Dave Weth. “My partner and I got 25 species, which wasn’t bad considering. Waterfowl seemed to be lacking, but we had good numbers of bluebirds, which was nice.”
Results of the Peoria count held Dec. 15 are still coming in, said count compiler Thad Edmonds. Preliminary results show 69 species with a highlight of 1,800 ruddy ducks.
Also, a glaucous gull was seen at the Eastport Marina.
Still on tap for the Peoria area are counts at Chautauqua Saturday and Chillicothe on Jan. 5.
H. David Bohlen, assistant curator of zoology at the Illinois State Museum, participated in counts at Meredosia Island and Crane Lake in the Sanganois State Fish and Wildlife Area near Chandlerville on Dec. 14.
The Meredosia count yielded a few unusual birds, including a Harris’ sparrow, spotted towhee and 10 common redpolls, Bohlen said.
Crane Lake was filled with thousands of ducks, but dreary conditions made seeing distant ducks nearly impossible.
“There were at least 2,000 pintails and 1,000 northern shovelers,” Bohlen said. “And it sounded like there were 10,000 hunters, too.”
Bohlen also tallied an Eastern phoebe and a greater yellowlegs — a shorebird that should have gone south long ago.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen one on an Illinois count,” he said.
Rare or out-of-place birds are of interest to researchers.
Are they unfortunate birds blown off course by a storm? Or are they pioneers moving into new territory?
A rufous hummingbird in Rockford has been seen regularly at a backyard feeder since Nov. 9.
Rufous hummingbirds normally are found in the western United States.
Counters hope it is still around for the Kishwaukee Christmas Bird Count on Saturday.
Retired ornithologist and Illinois Audubon Society board member Vern Kleen banded the bird recently, and confirmed it is an immature female.
At the Savanna Army Depot in northwest Illinois, experienced birders watched a mountain bluebird for the better part of an hour, trying to be certain of its identification.
“I had seen them before out west, and we had some pretty good birders with us, and we were all kind of familiar with it,” said Randy Nyboer with the Illinois Natural History Survey. “But you are looking at it (in a different context) and wondering what is wrong with this thing.”
The mountain bluebird was seen with half a dozen eastern bluebirds.
“We looked at it for about 45 minutes and finally got a good angle on it,” he said.
Nyboer credits David Thomas, retired chief of the Illinois Natural History Survey, with making the identification.
Counters also saw a golden eagle, another western species, during the count.
Eddie Callaway of Sycamore compiles the Rock Cut CBC.
The count circle covers Rock Cut State Park and a group of smaller forest preserves and parks.
He said snowy weather could mean counters might see snow buntings, horned larks and Lapland longspurs.
“Other interesting birds we hope to find are the winter finches that include red and white-winged crossbills, common redpolls, evening grosbeaks, and pine siskins,” he said.
To find owls and other birds active around dusk and dawn, Callaway said his counters get up early.
“We try to count a little bit before sunrise and at dusk to find owls but we often find some during the day,” he said. “The number of counters is down for my circle this year and the area is quite large, but we go out and count as much as we can and whatever is visible.”
For Nyboer, the Christmas Bird Count is about more than finding rare species — or the greatest number of species.
“I could (handle my portion of the count) by myself, but it’s always better if you have someone go with you,” he said. “Christmas bird count time is a great time to get together, and share the camaraderie.
“It’s a good time to get a couple of good friends and get out there.”
Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.