Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas Bird Counting with John da Fisherman

Well, one down, and who knows how many to go. Our first CBC for 2005-6 is in the bank. On last Sunday, yours truly and virtually the entire BINAC team went out into the field for the 59th annual Lisle/Morton Arboretum Christmas Bird Count, which has graciously been sponsored by the Chicago Ornithological Society for many years.

The temperatures were unexpectedly cold (hovering between 5-10 degrees all day) and there were 4-6 inches of snow on the ground in most places, but we still broke the old count record with a total of 80 species. Actually, although it was a bit tough (the snow was worse than the cold because snow makes it difficult to walk fields and seldom-visited forest preserves all day), the conditions were almost perfect for maximizing our species count. The snow concentrated birds at feeders and pushed a few hard-to-find species like Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs into the (now almost completely suburban) circle from surrounding farm fields. Eighty species is a pretty good total for a Northern Illinois count that does not include any of the Lake Michigan shoreline.

The most amazing thing, though, is that the parties in my part of the circle (Area 6--our excellent compiler, Geoff Williamson, has divided the circle into six areas, each with an area leader) found an incredible *70* species on count day. That is truly amazing when you consider that all six areas combined only found 80 species, and that as recently as the year 2000 the *entire circle* only recorded 70 species. (I just checked the Cornell web site and it states that there were 81 species recorded in 2003, but I'm pretty sure Geoff said we had broken the record, so maybe my memory is incorrect and we actually had 82 species this year...or maybe it's a "count week" issue or something.) I think the area with the second-highest total this year had 52 species or something close to that. This was pretty much our "Perfect Storm" for this CBC and I'm not sure I can picture us pulling out more than 70 species from Area 6 next year, unless the weather is really warm and we have marshes that have not yet frozen over.

The countdown dinner was, as usual, a blast, and the pizza from the Home Run Inn tasted sweeter than it ever has. Geoff has put together an incredible Powerpoint-type presentation where each party reads off their totals for each species, starting with the common birds (Code 1) and finishing with birds that are not on the checklist (Code 4 birds). There is a lot of trash-talking (well, mainly from the BINAC crew), and the countdown format does build some suspense as you're waiting to see what Code 4 birds everyone has in their pocket, and as the species count creeps up towards the record on the big screen.

My party consisted of myself and three other birders, including British Steve. John da Fisherman coordinated the other half of Area 6 and had 3-4 parties in the field. John told me a great story after the count about him falling in teh snow on his naked ass but I don't think I can tell the whole story here. Every time we go to the countdown dinner John loses a few great birds his parties saw and this year was no exception. At one point, we had just finished counting and adding all of the birds John's parties had seen to the running total I had tabulated from our other parties when John pulls yet another crumpled list out of his back pocket...the whole table erupted in laughter, everyone else must have though we were crazy, but he had some good birds on that crumpled list! I'm still trying to figure out what a "Crackling Goose" is, but we got photos, so count 'em!

My personal best bird was a Gray Catbird (second one I have seen on this count in the past few years) that I had staked out the night before when I saw it fly into a bush on the edge of a robin roost at dusk on Saturday. It took a little bit of (ahem) coaxing, but he popped out of that very same bush first thing Sunday morning. I also saw another Gray Catbird, which I assume (?) was the same bird, near dusk on Sunday about 25 yards away from the morning sighting.

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