Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas Bird Counting and More

The many, many CBC birding "circles" in North America
The 115th Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count took place Dec 14, 2014 to January 5, 2015.  It is the longest running Citizen Science survey in the world, beginning around the turn of the 1900s. The Christmas Bird Count provides critical data on population trends. Tens of thousands of participants know how fun and challenging it can be.  This year’s installation was no different as Barbara and I stepped outside our Milwaukee apartment on the last official day of fall 2014, and into the chilly 28 degree air.  Opie was busily sniffing the air as all lucky dogs do that get to step outdoors; all the while we loaded the WPT with our birding gear.  You see, we decided that he could come along this year.  He agreed.

The many, many CBC birding "circles" in Wisconsin
Our little “corner” of the birding SE Wisconsin “WIMI” circle was again Area 20.  If you looked at a clock face and imagined that we were at about the number seven (7); you’d get close to finding the multiple city real estate where we were about to crisscross for the rest of the day.  Each count takes place in an established 15-mile wide diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler.  Our WIMI circle is compiled by Andrea Szymczak and has been for the past several seasons.  If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher.  If your home is within the boundaries of a CBC circle, then you can stay at home and report the birds that visit your feeder on count day as long as you have made prior arrangement with the count compiler.  

Birds may be counted by sight or also by Voice ID (meaning that if you can positively identify the species by ear, you may include that species as being legitimately counted.)  This comes in handy when geography gets in the way of a line of sight ID.  Data from the over 2,300 circles are entered after the count officially ends each year and become available to query under the Data & Research link of the Audubon site.   Neither Barbara nor I were able to count the previous year due to holiday travel that took us well north of the area, so consequently the data I was comparing our 2014 observations to was from 2012’s count.  In that respect there was little comparison to those dismal (rainy-day) numbers.  Birds were everywhere we looked and very active.  True, there was no snow cover and food was plentiful, but I would have thought that at least the cold would keep their numbers down somewhat. 

Little Bird and Birdstud Count Birds

Jacobus Park (in the village of Wauwatosa) was our first stop.  With Opie trying to choke himself at the end of a 10-foot retractable leash; Barbara and I ticked off bunches of both American Goldfinch and Robins.  Downy woodpeckers zipped back and forth across the road and Dark-eyed juncos hopped in the brown leaves at the Menominee River’s edge in search of food.  The small pond in front of the community gathering structure was frozen over, though I would not guess solid.  As a result the only Mallards were on the free-flowing water of the river across the road.  The steep rough-hewn paths within the park were not covered with the often characteristic ice, so we were able to traverse them safely as we looked high in the trees for the squawking Red-bellied woodpecker. 

A murder of noisy American crows on the edge of a clearing piqued our interest enough to get a closer look.  Sure enough; a Cooper’s hawk tried its best to ignore the caw-cawphony, but eventually took to the skies with a jet black pursuer on his tail.  That was a particularly satisfying moment for me, as it’s great when you can use nature’s clues to get a sighting of a bird that is trying its best to stay hidden from view.  Crows are wonderful harbingers of nearby owl or raptor activity…use them to your advantage and don’t ignore their fussing.   Barbara and I met a nice woman named Rebecca Haefner and her Westy walking along the roadway who knew exactly what we were doing and called out as we drew nearer.  It turns out she is very active on the board of the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin and is affiliated with www.wisconservation.org.  After a total walk of three miles which included a northern pass through Doyne Park, we climbed into the WPT to find a smoky grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup back at the apartment.  No, we didn't count that.

Once fueled again; I went it alone for the afternoon.  Opie was completely gassed and needed a nap. I began by driving to the extreme north edge of Wood National Cemetery to walk along the old No. 10 Milwaukee Streetcar route under a series of massive electrical power line steel towers, next to I-94. Apparently the Mourning doves and Northern cardinals I had seen in 2012 still called this little corridor their home, because there they were again.  I happily made a tick mark for each one as I walked along the grass and gravel of the route. American robins and Black-capped chickadees also could be seen in the leafless trees and scraggly evergreens that lined the path and narrow concrete roadway.  I was taking a photo of an old cast iron electrical access box lid with "TMER & LCO" embossed into the lid when my eye spotted a strange gray (box-like object) lying on the ground nearby.  I toed it with my hiking book to turn it over when I saw that it appeared to have a large round magnet screwed to the bottom.

Christmas Bird Counting in Wood Cemetery
Now, any birdwatcher worth his or her salt has accidentally come across geocache treasure boxes while scampering over rocks or climbing over structures on their way to a sighting, so I thought that perhaps this was what I had here.  Not wanting to disrupt the cache too greatly, but fearing it was already out of its intended (magnetic) placement as it was now lying on the ground near a chain link fence, I picked it up to investigate further.  There were four duct-taped tabs that gave me access to the "cover" of the (Tupperware-like) box, so I carefully unsnapped them.  Inside I discovered a clear plastic zip-top bag with the words "Letterbox Only" and "No Trades" written in black marker on the bag.  This really got my interest going, so I opened the zip-top to examine the contents of the bag. Inside one bag (inside the first bag) was a small notebook with an image of a streetcar on the front. On the streetcar was the letters, "TMER & L."  I noted that these were the exact letters on the top of the electrical access box lid I was taking a picture of before I found the smaller box.  There could be no coincidence here; there must be a connection and certainly an interesting side-story to be chronicled in this here blog.

Inside the notebook was a small computer-printed explanation of what a "Letterbox" was and what one was to do when one found it.  It also had the website atlasquest.com on the tag, where a person could learn more about this curious hobby.  I jotted down the web address and the email address of the individual who had assembled this treasure.  The notebook was newer looking and had only one other entry.  On one of the first pages was a series of three "avatar stamps" of insects in different colors, a pseudonym of the stamper and the date that each was stamped; 8-25-14.  Just for fun I wrote on the next page that I was a bird watcher that had accidentally found this cache and my actual name before placing it gently back inside its own bag again.  The last bag contained a red-rubber reverse carved image of the streetcar wrapped in slightly damp paper toweling.  This was the "prize" if you will.  A fellow letterboxer would use their own inked stamp and print this image into their own notebook as proof that they had successfully located this particular box.  I found the entire concept fascinating and wanted to learn more.  HERE is more for you now to investigate if you wish; however suffice it to say that this has slowly become yet another world-wide hobby for adventurous travelers everywhere. 

Next was a stop at Hart Park in Wauwatosa, where I found a smaller group of American crows sitting on light poles and walking in the grass plus a large amount of Mallards on the river.  I was very surprised to see that many ducks at that time of year, however as the temperatures were mild and the water was moving briskly; they must have had plenty of whatever they needed right where they were.  

The balance of my time counting was never as interesting or fruitful as that morning period with Barbara.  I ultimately finished my day driving back and forth through the various neighborhoods with my windows down; listening and watching (but mostly listening).  This is an effective way to cover a large amount of territory in a short amount of time, as most "urban birds" will be hanging out in groups near convenient bird feeders, if they aren't gathered in the larger open park and golf course areas.  Once I heard something interesting I would stop and walk around a bit to count what I saw.    

Here's our 24 species list for the day, as reported to Andrea:

  • 2    Canada Goose
  • 92   Mallard
  • 2    Common Merganser
  • 4     Herring Gull
  • 4    Ring-billed Gull
  • 1    Cooper’s Hawk
  • 3    Blue Jay
  • 99   Rock Pigeon
  • 18   American Crow
  • 26   Mourning Dove
  • 36   American Robin
  • 6    Downy Robin
  • 2    Hairy Woodpecker
  • 1    Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • 5    White-breasted Nuthatch
  • 1    Northern Flicker
  • 17   Black-capped Chickadee
  • 7    House Finch
  • 60   American Goldfinch
  • 15   Northern Cardinal
  • 7    Cedar Waxwing
  • 96   European Starling
  • 155 House Sparrow
  • 17   Dark-eyed Junco