Setting out on a Thursday morning, a day of annual leave from my job to go count birds for my Audubon chapter, the dry air couldn't have been more crisp with a relative humidity hovering around 19%. I sent out a general interest question regarding rescheduling our annual Christmas Bird Count, an event that my Audubon chapter has participated in for almost 60 years, usually on the first official Saturday. Last Friday's horrendous road conditions and Saturday's forecast for another lousy weather day sent us to reschedule to Thursday, a nice clement day of 35 degrees, light and variable winds, clear to partly cloudy skies. So I volunteered to canvass the areas that the regular counters couldn't hit because of work or other obligations.
My first site in Section 2 North was a recreational lake surrounded by parkland but dotted with woodlands, and native plantings along the shoreline that follow the contour to the woodland edge. I truly delighted in the explosion of dark-eyed juncos and white-throated sparrows gorging on buttonbush seed; every twig must have hosted one of these birds, almost too many birds to count. Unlike a lot of competitive birders, I didn't join the Christmas Bird Count to rack up species numbers. I do it for the fun, for the delight in seeing wintering birds, to observe behavior and to watch them in their surroundings, and to add to the winter bird data that my chapter has collected for all these years. At this first site I didn't have a huge species list, but the highlights included all of the mockingbirds! Five mockingbirds in the shrub layer, sadly eating bush honeysuckle berries, trash food extraordinaire with no nutritional value. 25 species including a flyover of a sharp-shinned hawk capped the morning at the first area.
Keeping in touch with other count circle members with the internet, I noted that they had not yet seen the golden-crowned kinglet for the circle, a regular species for the area. I spent another hour at the recreational lake and park complex and saw two! Check, 2N got their golden-crowned kinglets. We all missed geese besides Canada goose with all the frozen ponds and other factors which I may not be aware of. At the end of the day, I learned that even at the local wetland complexes we failed to document any snow geese, speckled bellieds, or even a Ross' goose. Bad day for geese, but a good day for woodpeckers. My house happens to rest in the middle of the count circle for 2N, so I was able to document my yellow-bellied sapsucker who hangs out on my cedar and the three red bellieds who visit my feeder everyday.
Count day continued and I was sent to an area south of town to visit a woodland complex, but on the road to the woodlands I saw my first-of-the-day bald eagle, some turkey vultures, and more and more blue jays. I realize a lot of folks aren't crazy about blue jays, but in recent years their numbers were way down due to West Nile Virus which impacted jays and crows alike. I've helped out with the Christmas Bird Count in various parts of Missouri for twelve years and have never seen as many blue jays as I did on Thursday. They really are beautiful birds.
Checking in with my fellow count circle birders, I learned that a nearby state park with a bunch of dead white oaks from the 2012 drought harbored huge numbers of red-headed woodpeckers, hands down my favorite Missouri bird. I have hand carved wooden ornaments of this bird, have secured permission to photos of this bird for professional interpretive panels where appropriate, have paintings of red-headeds and I tend to migrate to woodlands and savannas where this bird is prevalent, so it's nice to hear they're hanging out in a local state park. My count circle got all 7 woodpeckers and brown creeper by noon on Thursday.
The Christmas Bird Count is a national event, so anywhere you visit you may be able to hook up with the local organizers to participate. Our count caught the attention of local press who tagged along with our field trip organizer who published this article in the local paper about our count day. We didn't have our annual tally party-with-chili-supper so missed out on a lot of good camaraderie that we all really appreciate. Because I never ran into any of my fellow counters, I'll be driving all over town tomorrow to deliver rum balls and fudge to my birder friends and meeting at a local watering hole to finally tally all the results once they come trickling in. Keep those feeders filled and you may get a good glimpse of a pretty purple finch or a smattering of white-throated sparrows who like to eat food off the ground.