Birders eye 87 species at annual Christmas count

By Dick Mason, The Observer January 15, 2011 02:24 pm
TED SCHROEDER photo UNIQUE SIGHTING: This ferruginous hawk was the first one ever spotted during the Union County Christmas Bird Count.
TED SCHROEDER photo UNIQUE SIGHTING: This ferruginous hawk was the first one ever spotted during the Union County Christmas Bird Count.
A pesky bald eagle helped the 35th annual Union County Christmas Bird Count soar to new heights on New Year’s Day.

Counters spotted 87 species of birds, shattering the old record of 77 set a year ago.

About 15 of the species were counted at the City of La Grande water treatment lagoon in a small area that was not frozen over. The section, about 1,500 square feet, may have been the only expanse of water in the count area not frozen over, said Trent Bray of La Grande, the count’s coordinator.

Waterfowl were thus drawn to the open water like a magnet. Having so many birds in one place was a dream for Bray and fellow birders Mike McAllister and Mike Mahoney, who were counting together at the water treatment area.

“It saved us a lot of time,’’ Bray said.

The counters were assisted by a nearby bald eagle hoping to pick off one of the birds in the water for a meal. Every bird in the open water appeared keenly aware of the raptor.

“All were completely agitated by the eagle,’’ Bray said.

This helped Bray, Mahoney and McAllister because the nervous waterfowl were moving in and out of the water due to the eagle. The movement made it easier for the three men to spot birds that otherwise might be hidden.

The talk of the bird count was not the bald eagle but two species never scene during the Union County CBC — an American bittern and a ferruginous hawk. The American bittern, a wading bird that is part of the heron family, was the last bird species spotted on New Year’s Day. Bray found it in a marshy area around Hot Lake as darkness was nearing at 5:15 p.m.

He knew the bird might be there since someone from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife had reported seeing it about a week before the bird count.

American bitterns normally hold tight when there is a disturbance, so Bray knew it would be hard to get it to fly into view. He stomped his feet loudly while walking through the Hot Lake area and succeeded in getting the bird to fly out.

American bitterns in Oregon normally winter in the Lakeview area.

The ferruginous hawk, like the American bittern, had been spotted in the count area the week of the count. The 30 people participating in the annual event were on the lookout for the hawk and the American bittern.

A number of count participants did not waste any time getting started on Jan. 1. Bray, McAllister and Courtney Loomis began their search for birds at midnight in the Mill Creek area near Cove. They hiked to areas where they would be most likely to hear owl calls — avian voices that could be tabulated as part of the Christmas Bird Count.

The birders played recorded calls to provoke responses from owls. They counted five species of owls before sunrise while east of Cove below Mount Fanny. Conditions were ideal for detecting owl calls.

“It was perfect. It was like someone turned the sound off outside,’’ said Bray, owner of the Bobolink, a birding supply store.

The owls were among the 11,529 total birds counted Jan. 1. The sum was 874 more than last winter’s total but at least 1,000 shy of the all-time record.

The waterfowl spotted included 2,642 mallards, 2,530 of which were counted at the water treatment lagoon. The mallard total was the highest of any species. Mallards usually lead the count.

European starlings were the second most populous birds in this winter’s count at 1,814. Starlings were followed by California quail at 1,122, dark eyed juncoes at 843, house sparrows at 581, rock pigeons  at 427 and American goldfinches at 400.

The American goldfinch total was the most ever, topping the old bird count record of 316 set in 2003. This was one of 14 species records set. Marks were also set for the:

• sharp shinned hawk — eight were spotted, two more than the old record of six set in 2008.

• northern harrier — 98 were counted, breaking the old record of 93 set in 2007.

• short-eared owl — five, breaking the old record of four set in 1984.

• great horned owl — 16, eclipsing the old record of 13 set in 2006.

• common raven —  242, topping the old record of 222 established in 2007.

• American pipit — 16, shattering the previous mark of one set in 1981.

• yellow rumped warbler — four, breaking the old mark of three set in 1993.

• bewick’s wren — 14, topping the 2009 mark of 11.

• spotted towhee — three, eclipsing the old record of two in 1976.

• Lincoln’s sparrow — three, topping the old 2007 mark by one.

• Pacific wren — one was spotted. This was the first time the bird has been seen on the count when it was known as the Pacific wren. Previously it was named the winter wren. The American Ornithologist Union recently changed the name of winter wrens in the west to Pacific wrens. Winter wrens had previously been seen on the Union County Christmas Bird Count about 10 times.

Four species records were tied during the Union County Christmas Bird Count:

• two pie billed grebes were spotted, tying the old mark set in 1997.

• two northern goshawks were counted, matching a record set in 1984.

• two pileated woodpeckers were spotted, knotting a mark set in 1995.

• one snow bunting was seen. One was also spotted in 2007.

The Christmas Bird Count is an international event conducted for 111 years by the National Audubon Society. Count results are sent to the society, which publishes them.

The Union County count was again conducted in an area whose center is about one mile northwest of Union. The area has a 15-mile diameter and a radius of 177 square miles.

Bray credits the species record set this year to an enormous amount of work by the 30 participants. He noted that most did extensive pre-scouting of count routes the day before, work that added greatly to the success of Christmas Bird Count.

“We had a good idea of what was out there before the count.’’