Christmas bird count: A holiday tradition

December 23, 2011 05:19 pm

FROSTY  MORNING: Dee Hammon, Diane Knox, Susie Brown and "Charlie" consult the Sibley's Guide to Birds during the Enterprise Christmas Bird count Saturday. KATY NESBITT / The Observer
FROSTY MORNING: Dee Hammon, Diane Knox, Susie Brown and "Charlie" consult the Sibley's Guide to Birds during the Enterprise Christmas Bird count Saturday. KATY NESBITT / The Observer

Jack Frost couldn’t have painted a better scene Sunday morning to greet birders as they braved sub-freezing temperatures for the annual Enterprise Christmas bird count.

This year’s organizer, Mike Hansen, drew a circle around Enterprise and with the help of long-time Christmas bird count facilitator Andie Leuders, five-mile circumference routes were assigned to groups of bird enthusiasts.

Armed with a list of potential birds, guide books and binoculars, each team left Friends Restaurant in Enterprise for a morning of identifying the valley’s winter species.

According to the Audubon website, before 1900 people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt.” Whoever brought in the most birds, won.

On Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the Audubon Society, suggested a new holiday tradition, a bird census, where people would count birds instead of hunt them. On that Christmas day more than 100 years ago, 27 birders conducted 25 bird counts all over the country and tallied 89 species.

Sunday morning Diane Knox of Joseph loaded up her Honda station wagon with three first-time Christmas bird counters. Dee Hammon took on the duty of secretary, and bird enthusiast Susie Brown brought along her binoculars and her copy of “Peterson’s Bird Guide.” A bleary-eyed journalist rode along with her camera and reporter’s notebook to record the adventure.

The day started off with a sighting of rock doves, an invasive species of pigeons whose numbers are burgeoning in Wallowa County.

Next on the list, a single starling, then a mourning dove and a small flock of Canada geese.

Much of the morning felt like drive-by birding as the Honda slowly drove the country roads and alleys between Enterprise and Alder Slope. Once in a while the car would stop. Four humans and Charlie the dog would leap out to see a great blue heron or a kingfisher fishing from an electrical wire that crossed a stream. These sudden stops were reminiscent of garage sale shoppers who stop suddenly in front of driveways and leave the car running and the doors open in the excitement of finding a bargain.

Knox joked, “I need a sign for the car, ‘Caution, Birders. Makes frequent stops.’”

Lacing the streets and roads adjoining Fish Hatchery Lane proved somewhat fruitful, but many of the smaller seed-eating birds seemed to be slumbering late and avoiding the frosty morning. Knox suggested everyone keep an eye out for bird feeders next to houses as a good way to add to the list. However, the only bird identified this way was a sharp-shinned hawk at the Wallowa County Nursery’s feeder waiting for the wayward wren or junco to stop by for a bite to eat and perhaps become breakfast for the small hawk.

The nursery’s pond is a good spot for waterfowl sighting where hundreds of mallards and the occasional wood duck are overseen by Drake the black lab. If the ducks don’t get to the leftover bread snacks left by the Bateses, Drake gobbles them up.

The route included the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s hatchery pond, a fabulous site — both beautiful and full of waterfowl including buffleheads, mallards, pin tails, Canada geese and sometimes mergansers. The low morning sun made the frost sparkle and as the birders crept closer to the shore for positive bird identification, flocks would take flight providing excellent photographing.

The Wallowa Valley is rife with raptors. A bald eagle was spied sitting in a field, possibly hunting mice or squirrels. Several hawks were seen from redtails to ruffed to the smaller kestrels and sharp shinned.

Knox said another good birding spot is in horse feeding troughs where the opportunistic may be seen feeding alongside their equine friends. Juniper and snowberry bushes are also good for finding wintering birds using the shrubs for shelter and food.

Back at El Bajio where the Christmas bird counters gathered to turn in their lists, Jo Jeffries showed a picture of a mouse hanging on a fence. This is “shrike” evidence, a bird that kills prey and stores them for later. Bill Burkett, an avid birder, said he has seen stockpiles of ground squirrels in the vicinity of a hawk’s nest.

Sighting birds and consulting guides is one way to identify, but when a few crows flew overhead Brown said she heard the call of a raven instead. Knox added that starlings are terrific at mimicking other birds and animals including roosters and frogs, making identification difficult at times.

Brown said now that she’s a birder she sees the differences among similar bird species.

“Someone may think, it’s just a bird, but I’ll say, ‘No, look! It’s something special,’” Brown said.