Sunday, December 28, 2008

Foggy and warm, a strange Rockwood Christmas Bird count, 12/27/08

Even as I walked out the door at 5:00 am for owling, my neighborhood streets were shrouded in a deep fog. It was warm - 40 degrees F or so. The warm air met with the cold snow on the ground and the mists swirled around as if being created for a scary movie. Such a stark change from the Ann Arbor CBC a week earlier. Even though I could not really see - I drove right past a couple of my good owling spots - I tried for an hour and a half calling in only two screech owls. To reach my favorite owling spot, I drove along a road that was a solid sheet of ice. The ice didn't concern me as much as the flooded creek and drainage ditches on either side of the road. I thought, "oh no, this isn't good." To make it even worse, the two little screech owls that I usually find here did not make an appearance.

My first daylight stop was in a woods behind a pentacostal church on Huron River Drive in Flat Rock. Stepping out of the car, I could relax (driving along the foggy roads in the dark was not relaxing) and was struck by the beauty of this grey, misty morning. Here I also found some very nice birds: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Hermit Thrush and Brown Creepers along with good numbers of the expected decidious woodland species. I always check the tangles for Saw-whet Owl, but none was present for me again this year.

It remained foggy all morning. There were areas where it lifted, but mostly it was impossible to scan the fields for hunting or soaring raptors. This is a count where I always hope to find Rough-legged Hawk, but if one was around this year, it would have been nearly impossible to find. And as with my owling road above, several of my road surfaces were wet ice with fast moving water running through the flooded drainage ditches.

As I wrote about our search for American Kestrel during the Clinton CBC, fortunately there was no shortage of kestrels in my Rockwood territory. I found five and the one below posed for this cropped photo. He was close and not flighty, but he's still difficult to see with the gray sky for his backdrop.

I ended the day with 34 species counted which included some very good birds. A Peregrine Falcon was hunting around a woods near Dixie Highway and Brandon Road. The Hermit Thrush, two Eastern Towhees and single Turkey Vulture turn out not to have been found by any of the other counters. I heard from the count compiler, Tom Carpenter, this morning. So far, with two areas still needing to be reported, the Rockwood CBC tallied 94 species so far.

Next year, however, I will hope for better birding weather.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Cold and snowy Ann Arbor Christmas Bird Count, 12/20/08

Even though it had snowed 10 inches the day before, some wild and crazy sense of history and commitment made me set my alarm for 3:30 am on Saturday morning, 12/20/08.  I was out the door at 4:00 am and driving 45 miles to area 4 of the AA CBC circle.  Crazy!  I arrived at my owling spot at about 5:15 am and began calling for Screech Owls.  My first response did not come until about 5:45 am and, by this time, my toes were already frozen.  Finally, around 6:15 am, I stopped at one of my previously successful spots and heard two Screech and two Great Horned.  Total owl count:  four Screech and two Great Horned owls.  So began the 2008 AA CBC for me.  All things considered, not bad.  The road in the photo above is an example of a good road.  I got stuck on 5 Mile Road, my best small bird road, for about an hour.  In that hour, while my bins were in the car, I missed a positive ID of five White-winged Crossbills flying into a pine top heavy with cones.  My best bird for the day was a Fox Sparrow on Nollar Road.  Tim McKay and his team also found four White-crowned Sparrows for area 4.
Every year the best part of this CBC for me is getting to see and count with my area teammates:  Tim McKay and his van load doing the southern triangle and Dana Novak and Randy Messing doing the middle triangle.  This year Dana and Randy were joined by their seven month old twins, Henry and Oliver.

Count compiler and area 2 leader, Jacco Gelderloos, is in his second year of compiling this 62 year old Ann Arbor birding tradition.  Dea Armstrong (foreground), leader for area 1, has a long history of finding many good CBC birds.  This year an AA CBC first record Pileated Woodpecker was found in area 1.
The tally always starts with feeding hungry birders who have been in the field all day.

Every Ann Arbor CBC tally requires a polite pause while we listen to Mike Kielb expound on the count's American Crow population.  This year was no different.  "They flew in from the southeast and then from the northwest ... "

Now there's a picture!  That's Tim McKay with Henry Novak-Messing and Jordan McKay.  So ended the 2008 Ann Arbor Christmas Bird Count.  Next year I hope to have photographs of Oliver Novak-Messing at his second CBC tally.  Until we meet again in 2009. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Clinton Christmas Bird Count, Sunday, 12/14/08, the first of four in the 2008-2009 CBC season

The best two Christmas Bird Count counters one could ever have the good fortune to spend the day with are shown in the photograph above - Harold Eyster, age 15 and his sister, Artemis, age 12. Quick eyes, great identification skills and enthusiasm are what they brought to this CBC for me and our other great counter, Don Chalfant. I've birded with Harold and Artemis many times, but this was our first CBC together.

It was not a great count day weather wise. Wind, spitting rain and icy roads pestered us for most of the day. But we got the job done well.

Toward the end of the day, when we had good numbers of American Crows, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Black-capped Chickadees, American Tree Sparrows amongst others already tallied, we began to search our list for birds we should have seen but up until that moment had not. One of these was American Kestrel. We were driving along when Artemis called out a single bird perched on a distant wire. Single bird on a wire is not the typical pattern for Mourning Doves or European Starlings this time of year. As we had already driven past the bird, we had a brief debate about whether to back up (on an icy road) to make the identification. Everyone responded favorably to checking the bird and I put the car in reverse. The bird was still on the wire - it was a Mourning Dove. A brief discussion followed about the importance of checking all suspect birds, especially when trying to fill in the blanks for species still absent from the count.

We drove on a bit further, may have even made a stop or two in between to count mixed feeding flocks, when Artemis called out again, "hovering bird in the field to the right." There was no mistake about this ID. A kestrel was working the field, skillfully performing its fantastic hovering maneuvers. Artemis has spotted this bird from the back seat looking through a dirty, tinted window. We added our only kestrel of the day to the tally sheet.

It's difficult to tell from the above photograph, but our last species added and last birds counted for the day, was this field of Snow Buntings. A very active flock, they would lap the field a few times and then land briefly for some pecking in the snow and mud. For as long as we watched, they repeated this activity so typical of Snow Buntings. Sometimes they landed very close to the car and Harold and Artemis were able to do some quick sketching. The extra benefit is that Snow Bunting was a life bird for Artemis.

I include the photo above, Snow Bunting on a sandy beach, taken by Harold [Eyster as above] in October during our Whitefish Point (Chippewa County, upper peninsula of Michigan) field trip, so you can see how beautiful Snow Buntings are.  The bunting above was a life bird for Harold and as he was photographing it nearly walked over his shoes.  

The count day finally over, our last stop was at Big Boy's on M-52 in Chelsea to feed some hungry young birders, check photos and complete our tally sheet. Forty species were found and over 1800 individual birds were counted this day. The best birds [always an arguable point] were probably eleven Turkey Vultures, two Rough-legged Hawks, one American Kestrel, two Screech Owls, one daytime Great Horned Owl, one Hermit Thrush and four Pine Siskens. As is true with any CBC count, we undoubtedly missed a couple of species, but anyone familiar with Michigan CBCs would agree that we had a pretty great day.