Christmas Bird Count 2008
On Brush Mountain, Christmas Bird Count — always on a Saturday in mid-December — has normally been bigger than Xmas (the one with Baby Jesus and all that) itself. 2008, the 30th year we have participated in the Juniata Valley Audubon Society’s Culp Count, was no exception. I mean, Christmas itself is OK, what with all the cookies, carols, coffeecake and pagan revelry, but at heart it just isn’t as fun, at least for 3/5ths of the Bonta family, as a day of dawn-to-dusk hardcore birding in any and all weather conditions, followed by a potluck count supper at the Hoyer’s on down the mountain.
DISCLAIMER: The 2/5ths comprising Dave and Dad are not in the ‘hardcore’ cell; we’re talking about Mom, Steve, and tu servidor, who this year drove his butt off to make it up in time from Mississippi, where he coordinated the 5th annual Dahomey-Great River Road CBC the prior Monday (94 species).
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following account is written largely in birder slang, of the North American sub-dialect. Confounded readers would be well advised to spend more time with birders, who generally make good buds, pish a lot, and are great conversationalists, as long as you don’t change the topic (from birds, of course).
8 PM the night before (December 19): the ice storm has fizzled out, the wind is howling on the ridge, and a few stars are visible. Steve croons his daughter to bed in the guest house, and then he and Mark discuss possibilities and strategies for the next day. They toss around the vague idea of stumbling out around 2 AM, when Nature calls, to listen for owls (doesn’t happen). We’ve come a long way from the early counts of 20 or 25 species, and the last time Steve and Mark collaborated on this CBC, we got an all-time high of over 40 species for the mountain and surrounding areas. This year the stakes are higher — we have a new search strategy, and overall the Culp Count has been getting record high numbers of species, with 67 in 2008. We are at the far northwestern edge of the Count circle (15 miles in diameter, a standardized size and shape for all CBCs), which includes Sinking Valley as well as Canoe Creek State Park, where the lake, when not frozen, can yield up to a dozen species of waterfowl. Privately, Mark figures we can get 50 species in our area, and hit 70 for the Count. But he doesn’t voice these sentiments, for he feels this could easily jinx the effort. Some birders are quite superstitious-why jeopardize an effort that already involves weeks of supplication to the feeder spirit, the weather gods, and the different generic Roman deities that preside over the birds themselves?
A good CBC is all about strategy, and particularly knowing when to hit the good areas — the ones most likely to contain the birds you might or might not get. Strategy is also about knowing which areas to avoid (those frozen woods populated only by chicakdee/titmouse quartets), how long to spend in a certain area, and whether or not to indulge the urge to come back by the house for a sit-down lunch. For other birding groups, more driving than walking takes place; for the Bonta family, driving is the exception and only resorted to once all the good walkable areas have been hit.
Pre-dawn, Count Day (December 20): We gobble cake and swill coffee. Mark stuffs a pack and heads off to the top of the powerline on Laurel Ridge to listen for owls. Steve gets ready to head off for ‘Margaret’s property,’ a swath of east-facing woods once inhabited by our former neighbor Margaret McHugh on the Plummer’s Hollow side of Sapsucker Ridge. The strategy is for them to cover the best habitat on the mountain first — the thickets of wild grape and Hercules’ club where most birds on the mountain that aren’t at the feeder tend to hang out in the winter. Mark’s plan is to bird the thickets on the edge of Sinking Valley along the base of the mountain all the way up to the Hunting Lodge, another property three miles southwest. By late morning, they will know where they both stand species-wise, and thus what to do with the rest of the day. Mom, meanwhile, will bird the trails between the house and the Far Field, while Dad and Dave keep a watch on the feeder and the granddaughter, who herself is on the lookout for Little Green Men.
Before 7 AM: Mark has hooted at three owl species to no avail, so he slip-slides his way down the powerline toward Sinking Valley, mindful of ice on the ground; the temperature is 24 degrees, and the heavy cloud cover affords only the slightest glimpse of sunrise. Heartstopping small planes explode from the surrounding trees, gobbling and creaking their way down off the mountain, turkey after turkey, only to alight further down and take off again; stop the count at 19. Turkeys are ‘where you find them,’ as birders say, so it’s a good bird to tick off early. They later became an annoyance, with the females flying up into nearby trees to investigate Mark’s pishing. Damned turkeys. Then, right on cue, a screech owl quavers from a thicket to the north, while a great-horned owl hoots from somewhere to the south. Mark calls the house to relay the good news and light a fire under Steve, still munching. That’s right! For the first year, the Bontas have gone high-tech, with cells all around to increase efficiency and in case of a life-threatening birding accident, or just for gloating. (The emergency number for a junco attack is 114.)
Steve’s morning: He pishes and crunches his way through the thickets on Margaret’s former property, flushing typically high numbers of cardinals, juncos, Carolina wrens, and white-throated sparrows. Birch catkins and other gourmet food bring out the pine siskins by the hundreds. Pileated woodpecker is a tick, a raven croaks down the ridge, and the one that got away for the day is the common grackle, possibly heard. Mark, whose grackle numbers in Mississippi were over 10,000, had a hard time getting his mind around the local exoticity of the species, but, as the youth say, whatevs.
By the way, we’ve gotten thoroughly tired of including the complete names of a bunch of these species, so the reader will note a certain liberty with over-lengthy monikers. We figure the birds themselves really couldn’t care what they’re called. (We could be wrong about that — possibly the Baltimore oriole’s numbers are increasing as a direct effect of regaining its name after years of being insistently mislabeled ‘northern oriole.’ Some data appear to suggest that this may indeed be occurring.) Anyway, if the reader is a stickler for complete and proper English nomenclature, see the official checklist.
Steve picks up two species we don’t get most years, a lone purple finch and a yellow-bellied sapsucker. It later turns out that no one else in the count circle gets a PuFi. One of the cardinal rules (pun intended) of CBCs is never to assume that someone else will get a bird, and always make the extra effort to chase after every fleeting gray or brown form (CBC birds come in both colors — sometimes, if you’re lucky, on the same bird!). Give 110% for the team, all that jazz. (This is about as close as the Bonta clan gets to team sports, in case you’re wondering about the choice of language.)
Once the tangles are birded, Steve drops down into the hollow and follows the road to the bottom. Hollow birds are a bit of a different guild, and one expects golden-crowned kinglets, brown creepers, winter wrens, and the like. By 11, he’s not gotten anything extraordinary, but has certainly been able to lock up several species that weren’t necessarily givens. He calls Mark.
The Feeder: On a good year, the feeder gives you some security that no matter how shitty the count in the woods is, you will still get the lone whatever that’s been hanging out at the feeder for the last couple of weeks, instead of Papua New Guinea or wherever it would rather be if its navigational equipment had been functioning correctly. This year, the star bird is a swamp sparrow, only exotic if you live on top of a swampless Appalachian mountain. He makes his usual appearance, along with scads of pine siskins, goldfinches, a few mourning doves, woodpeckers, and a variety of other LBJs.
Mom’s morning: Mom is not a happy camper, because by a meteorological accident the swath she covers is still encased in ice, which means birds are close to nil. She does get the raven and a winter wren, but for the PM is content to dive into an opera and keep an eye on the feeder all afternoon. Dave and she also prepare varied chow for the evening feast.
Mark’s morning: The tangled and repeatedly logged woods at the base of the mountain along Sinking Valley are thick with generations of hunters’ tree stands, themselves a worthy topic for some cultural geographical graduate thesis. After a while, a tree without some evidence of a deer stand begins to look a bit naked and underdeveloped — the whole thing is reminiscent of some temperate-zone Kombai village after a speculative real estate crash. But deer there are, aplenty, and thankfully, there’s no active deer season at the moment. Blaze orange isn’t the best apparel for birding. Nobody out here but us birds-even larger numbers of cardinals, white-throated sparrows, and juncos than on Margaret’s Property, as well as a couple of the only robins seen on the count, and healthy numbers of woodpeckers: downies, hairies, red-bellieds, pileateds, and a flicker. And just about everything else among the suite of common birds — again, nothing extraordinary, but in the high twenties species-wise, by the time Steve calls.
On the importance of coffee: Birding without coffee is like coffee without a mug, or a dog without hair. Or a geographer without a well-refined grasp of the simile. Steve is caffeine-free, so he calls all jolly and happy to see what’s the plan; Mark is pishing listlessly and swilling some thermos brew, waiting for the effects to kick in to get that coveted second wind so important for the second four hours of effort. Steve is going to head out and bird some areas along the tracks and the Juniata River, while Mark quickly hits the normally barren and sterile Hunting Lodge property. Combined, they’re a little over 30 species. A little trail mix, and on to Phase Two.
Steve hits the lowlands: There’s an old pond that’s good for a mallard flock, flush up agin the mountain, between a steep field and the railroad tracks. He then strikes out across the main road over to some random slashed-apart bottomland woods behind the Tyrone sewage treatment plant, and bingo! Once again, the birds are where you find them. The slash along a short stretch of powerline yields another big species for the day, a ruby-crowned kinglet, most of whose cousins, aunts, uncles, and assorted friends and relations have winged it down to warmer climes. Good numbers of golden-crowned kinglets as well, and the first winter wren for him, the hollow having been Troglodytes-less. A kingfisher takes off from heated effluent waters, and a great blue heron croaks its way off up the river. In the past, we’ve gotten yellow-rumped warbler and blue-gray gnatcatcher here — there’s something special about the place that only birds can appreciate, perhaps something to do with that strange affinity they so often tend to have for sewage treatment plants.
Mark is pleasantly surprised: The mountain is higher over here, and the ice line is farther down it. Unfortunately, he finally runs into a firmly posted bit of property on the valley-side tangles, right in the midst of some serious ‘birdage.’ So he backtracks and goes up a side hollow, emerging at the unposted hunting lodge property, with some brush, a farm pond, some old outbuildings, and a house. No one around, but a lot of bird noise. Hermit thrush and tons of ‘junkiters’ (as a now-deceased Valley neighbor had it) and goldfinches, along with scads of other common species. Now, what you have to understand here is that the hunting lodge, despite being one big Hoss’s all-you-can-eat buffet for up-and-coming white-tailed deer, is usually sterile, i.e. birdless. But this time, It’s Different. With dramatic music playing in his head, Mark tops a rise and catches flashes of non-blue jay blue: bluebirds blooping around the mucky, stubbly field. Another surprise is a lone cedar waxwing, which ends up being one of only two or three for the whole count. The mixed flock has hundreds of birds in it, including surprising numbers of white-breasted nuthatches, a northern flicker, and (incidental to the flock) three explosive ruffed grouse. (Grice?)
Interlude: Little do they know they have already reached 40 species for the day. Mark crashes back through a mile of iced tangle with little avian activity, retracing Mom’s steps with similar luck. As the noon factory whistle blows, he stops briefly at the house, foregoing a real lunch but not more java, and heads on down the hollow to a rendezvous with Steve. By 1:00, they are in Mark’s truck with a short list of places to go and species to see before dusk. Having exhausted the mountain, they will attempt to clean up another ten species in the greater Tyrone metropolitan area.
Slowdown: Three trash birds are always a given once you leave the mountain fastnesses: rock pigeon, starling, and house sparrow. The first is wheeling around Tyrone in the form of a majestic flock; the second is present in small numbers; the third becomes quite difficult to locate. We stop behind the hardware store where a bush is sure to have them, but no luck. With prospects of locating this species becoming grim, we cruise down toward Steve’s house, finally finding a bunch in a bush by a church. Tick.
Otherwise, we hit the practice fields behind the high school. Virtually nada, and nothing new. Deep hemlock forest at Reservoir Park. Nada. Random bottomland woods around Bellwood. Nada. Finally, as it appears that the afternoon will yield only frustration and heartbreak, we stop at the Grazierville exit off I-99 and find a promising and unbirded marsh, some sort of mitigation wetland cheek by jowl with the Little Juniata River, sandwiched between the interstate, the river, and Old Rt. 220. Of such wetlands are legends born. In our case, the birdage is rich, ripe, and fulfilling, and we got three new species: Cooper’s hawk getting chased by a kestrel, and a flock of Canada geese finally getting off their butts and leaving the Tyrone Reservoir (which is slightly outside the count circle) to wing obligingly into our count area.
Thomastown and the sewage treatment bottomland woods yield nothing new, and with multiple recounts we agree on a total of 46 species for the day – the highest yet for the family. Without much wind and clear weather, we appeared to have lost our chance for eagles (both are seen in December flying down Sapsucker Ridge) or gulls, while both northern harrier and sharp-shinned hawk got by us as well. In addition, the only south-bound straggler we logged was the ruby-crowned kinglet; years in which warmth has lingered later have yielded catbirds, towhees, and suchlike dickie birds.
Count supper: Post-Christmas Bird Count letdown doesn’t settle in just yet. First, we must hie ourselves to the Hoyer’s. Back in the day, we met at the Grange Hall out in Sinkin’ Valley, and potluck meant many cheesy casseroles with a bare hint of green growing things. The earliest counts that I remember featured now-deceased Audubon stalwarts such as Al Burd and Truth Close as well as a chapped and apparently frostbitten John Orr, local uber-birder who could generally be counted on to supply some rareties. Several generations have come and gone, it seems, with the venue changing (for the way better) and the food now bordering on gourmet.
The Hoyer’s is a retirement shack in the woods capable of comfortably seating 30-plus. Who could have known? Close to three dozen plain folks getting together to celebrate the counting of birds – in one way or another, the Count Supper is repeated across North America during the holiday season, a unique type of cultural event. I think of the chili, beer, and wine we enjoy at Dahomey Wildlife Refuge headquarters in Mississippi, and imagine how the foods and settings must vary across the continent. What do the presumably unplain gentry of Manhattan dine on after their count, presumably focused on Central Park and giant landfills? How many counters get together at subtropical beach locations? How many eat at McD’s or other such exclusive venues?
As for Culp, we got it all and then some. A roaring fire made with a very real-looking gas log, in a massive central chimney place. Gleeful small children (a manageable flock of two) hoarding stuffed animals and chasing each other through towering legs and past temptingly breakable glass and porcelain trimmings. Birders and birder-others (probably more of the latter) holding forth about this and that. And after thirty years, a familiar face — John Orr, who has been long absent from these events, proving that the CBC itch never stops itching.
The spread is fabulous, with eggplant making an unusual vegetable entree, and other healthy stuff aplenty. Plus baklava. Seconds. Thirds. Groaning.
And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Most count events end with the compilation of data. What a letdown it is when the day ends at dusk and thanks to inclement weather the supper is cancelled and the data are emailed. Calling them out live to the compiler is a visceral experience if you’re hardcore — indeed, it’s nearly a religious experience (call-and-response). Heidi Mullendore is the compiler this year, and she reads from a woefully incomplete checklist that leaves lots of room for additions at the end. We are handicapped, as the Bonta family tally sheet was forgotten on the kitchen table, purportedly by Mark. After the common species comes the drama, when each count group announces the species they got that aren’t on the list. This year, these go on and on, with numerous waterfowl, a golden eagle, and, probably a first, a short-eared owl. Then, the magic moment — the total number of species. This year, it’s 69. A new high, albeit tentative, pending any confirmations the compiler requests.
The compiler reserves the right to accept or reject unusual species, part of the attempt to keep the ‘science’ in ‘citizen science,’ as Audubon calls these types of activities. In some cases, counters, regardless of their expertise, are asked to fill out Rare Bird forms, and occasionally even when these are accepted by the count compiler, the regional compiler — an august character whose purview includes counts in a multi-state area — nixes the species. This can be quite frustrating for the counter involved: I remember like it was yesterday the time my racket-tailless blue-crowned motmot was rejected solely on the grounds that it was a blue jay. I was only 4, but still. It hurts.
Trendwatch: And finally, in conclusion, we need to make all this relevant and significant, for otherwise we have simply penned a needlessly lengthy and superfluously verbose blogpost that will not stand the test of time and rather be forgotten like yesterday’s underwear. So, the question is, what’s important? We would say that it is the fact that the Culp count is getting higher numbers every year. Like everything else that is different and involves things that fly, we suspect that we have Global Warming to thank, sorry, blame. We are pretty sure that GW is causing everything to go higgledy-piggledy, which increases avian diversity, except for evening grosbeaks (mustard birds) which appear to be disappearing, and a few dozen other species we didn’t see so they don’t matter.
However, it is altogether possible that there were more birds than ever this year because the Dark Cloud in the East has lifted, and the minions of Sauron have dissolved into the morning mists. We’re talking about the other GW here and the Fall of Neocon. We are figuring that the birds have somehow sensed that a new administration will quickly act to save them and their habitats, as well as stop GW, rescue the world economy, and cause everyone everywhere to love each other and stop fighting endlessly over trivial, non-bird-related issues. Or at least lighten up a bit on the environment and make mountaintop removal punishable by death.
A third hypothesis, entirely untenable but included here for its laughable attempt to incorporate Occam’s Razor, has it that the Culp count species totals are increasing steadily because there are more people out counting birds. To disprove this is easy: I knew a guy whose cousin out in Iowa ran a count that had more people out every year, with less species as a result. So in the case of the Culp count it is easy to see that this hypothesis is false and should be discarded like yesterday’s underwear and Evolution.
So that’s it, then. Science is vindicated, Truth prevails, and 70 becomes the new 69 for the future of central Pennsylvania Christmas counting. For the meantime, let the post-Christmas Bird Count letdown commence!
The list (as compiled by Marcia):
great blue heron — 1
Canada goose — 64
mallard — 6
Cooper’s hawk — 1
red-tailed hawk — 5
American kestrel — 1
ruffed grouse — 6
wild turkey — 19
rock dove — 92
mourning dove — 8
great horned owl — 2
eastern screech owl — 1
belted kingfisher — 1
red-bellied woodpecker — 14
yellow-bellied sapsucker — 1
downy woodpecker — 30
hairy woodpecker — 2
pileated woodpecker — 4
northern flicker — 3
blue jay — 7
black-capped chickadee — 55
American crow — 25
common raven — 1
tufted titmouse — 23
white-breasted nuthatch — 20
brown creeper — 4
Carolina wren — 22
winter wren — 3
golden-crowned kinglet — 11
ruby-crowned kinglet — 1
eastern bluebird — 13
American robin — 2
hermit thrush — 2
cedar waxwing — 1
European starling — 28
northern cardinal — 58
American tree sparrow — 24
song sparrow — 10
white-throated sparrow — 60
swamp sparrow — 1
dark-eyed junco — 208
house finch — 72
purple finch — 1
pine siskin — 230
American goldfinch — 63
house sparrow — 15
Also seen within the count week:
sharp-shinned hawk (December 17)
northern harrier (December 23)
Weather — Overcast, 23 degrees F.
Fifteen hours on foot and thirteen miles.
Two hours by car and 25 miles.
Lightly edited by Dave, who has de-capitalized the names of birds in keeping with common English usage, not to mention the scientific literature, and says the AOU can bite his butt.