January 03, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

For the fourth straight year the European starling has laid claim to the Union County Christmas Bird Count title.

The European starling was the most populous of the birds counted last month with 3,152 recorded. This was the highest number of starlings seen in the 25-year history of the count. The total eclipsed the record of 2,317 starlings spotted in 2000.

Virtually all European starlings in the United States are descendants of 60 birds released in New York Citys Central Park in 1890, according to the Birders Handbook by Paul Ehrlich, David Dobkin and Darryl Wheye.

Mallards traditionally have led Union Countys count, but during the 2001 tabulation only 2,260 were spotted. This is significantly fewer than the record 9,227 spotted in 1989 but more than the 1982 low of 1,009.

In spite of the drop, it is unlikely that mallard numbers have fallen in the county, said Bill Dowdy of the Grande Ronde Bird Club, which organized the count. He said mallards are more scattered throughout the Grande Ronde Valley and not concentrated as much at sites in the count area.

The count area centered in Union. The same area has been used throughout the counts 25-year history. The area has a 15-mile diameter.

Following starlings and mallards, house sparrows were the third most populous bird spotted. A total of 508 house sparrows were counted.

In addition to the record starling total at least four other marks were established:

78 redtail hawks, topping the old mark of 55 set in 1998.

45 Rio Grande turkeys, breaking the old mark of 26 set in 1999.

117 ravens, topping the old mark of 72 in 1985.

10 greater white-fronted geese, breaking the old record of one set in 1988.

The greater white-fronted goose is not rare in Union County. Dowdy has spotted as many as 2,000 in the spring on a body of water near Cove.

A total of 9,070 birds were spotted in the 2001 count, 274 fewer than in 2000. The record high was 13,172 in 1983; the record low was 3,034 in 1982.

A total of 68 species were spotted during the latest count, one less than a year ago. Seventeen adults and two children participated in the count, held on Dec. 15. The counters drove a total of 231.3 miles, walked for three hours and spent three hours at bird feeders.

Temperatures ranged from 24 to 26 degrees Fahrenheit for most of the count.

Joyce Coate of La Grande tabulated the Union County results.

The National Audubon Societys Christmas Bird Count, a worldwide event, has been conducted for 102 years. Information from Union County and other counts is sent to the Audubon Society, which publishes an annual summary.