Six records broken at Christmas Bird Count

By Dick Mason, The Observer January 13, 2012 08:50 pm

Two western screech-owls like this one, photographed earlier in Union County, were located during the Christmas Bird Count. TRENT BRAY photo
Two western screech-owls like this one, photographed earlier in Union County, were located during the Christmas Bird Count. TRENT BRAY photo

No snow, with one minor exception, fell during the recent annual Union County Christmas Bird Count.

But six records did — including a most coveted mark.

Counters located 88 species of birds, eclipsing the old record of 87. The previous mark was set a year ago. That was considered a landmark because it was the first time at least 80 species had been counted.

The new species record was set despite a strong daytime wind. The steady wind caused some birds to stay in covered areas and made it harder to hear calls and send ones out for birds to respond to.

“If the wind had not been blowing, I think we would have reached 90 species,’’ said Trent Bray of La Grande, the compiler of the Union County Christmas Bird Count.

No snow fell during the count except at a high elevation area.

Bird species spotted during count week but not seen on count day included four California gulls. This was the first time California gulls had been spotted during count week.

Other bird species spotted during count week but not on count day included the ring-billed gull, the gray partridge, the Clark’s nutcracker, the horned lark and the swamp sparrow.

The count was conducted Dec. 17. That was significant since last winter’s count was conducted Jan. 3, much later than most of the previous counts.

Some people speculated that the reason the species record was broken last winter was that the count was conducted later.

The record set in the latest Union County count indicates that holding it later likely did not significantly influence the results, said Bray, the owner of the Bobolink, a La Grande birding supply store.

The Christmas Bird Count is an international event conducted for 112 years by the National Audubon Society. The society allowed its most recent count to be conducted on any day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 4.

Twenty-five people participated in the 36th annual Union County Christmas Bird Count. The people covered 14 routes, each of which had an assigned leader, an experienced birder who knew the route well.

The talk of the count centered on more than the species record. The talk also focused on sighting of two bird species never spotted before on the local count — the Bonaparte’s gull and the greater sage-grouse.

A Bonaparte’s gull was located at the City of La Grande sewage lagoons. Bonaparte’s gulls are often seen in the spring and fall in Union County but rarely after November.

Four greater sage-grouse were spotted, all by the La Grande husband-and-wife team of Bruce Johnson and Mary Rowland.

These first-ever sightings plus the species mark were three of six records set during the count. Records were also set for the:

• ruby-crowned kinglet — 17 were counted, breaking the old record of 12 set in 2009.

• white-crowned sparrow — 273 were counted, shattering the previous mark of 152 in 2006.

• American goldfinch — 419 were counted, topping the earlier high of 400 in 2010.

Five species of owls were located during the count, a credit to the efforts of Bray, Mike McAllister, and Mike Mahoney, all of La Grande, and Kendrik Moholt of Lostine. The four birders began their search at midnight in Ladd Canyon. The birders played recorded calls to provoke responses from owls. Each owl they heard could be included in the count under rules set by the American Birding Association, whose guidelines are followed by the National Audubon Society.

The four men’s efforts were a major reason 6 barn owls, 16  great horned owls, 1 northern pygmy owl, 2 western screech-owls and 5 short-eared owls were spotted or heard.

These owls were among the total 10,088 individual birds located during the count.

Mallards were again the most common bird spotted, with 3,136 counted. The mallard record on the Union County count is 9,802, a record set in 2005. Most of the mallards were counted at the City of La Grande sewage lagoons. Counters were fortunate because ice had recently melted at the lagoons, creating open water that drew in the mallards.

Starlings were the second most populous bird at 2,546 followed by the house sparrow at 430, the American goldfinch at 419, the California quail at 366 and the dark-eyed junco at 340.

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. Twenty-five people participated in the count, covering a total of 14 routes.

The Union County Christmas Bird Count is one of more than 2,000 conducted annually. The National Audubon Society publishes the results.

The society has a record of every Christmas Bird Count conducted since the first one in 1900. The information is a valuable resource for    ornithologists.

“It is the most extensive and oldest body of date on birds,’’ Bray said. “It is super citizen science.’’