Monday, December 19, 2016

The Christmas Bird Count for 2016

It had snowed between 4-6 inches depending where in the 15-mile birding circle you found yourself on Friday night the 16th of December, 2016.  The weather woman was predicting another 6-8 to fall between 11:00 and 9:00 PM on Saturday; but that didn't deter our small but intrepid and capable group from heading out at 8:00 AM.  Three of us (Barbara, Robert Massey and I) had a nice hot cup of coffee and a breakfast treat at the Collectivo on 92nd and North Avenue before driving to the parking lot at Hoyt Park.  We walked through the partially plowed lot to the unplowed trail carrying binoculars and the official counting clip board.  The temperature was about 14 degrees but the sun was shining.  The wind was out of the west making it "feel like" seven degrees.  We were bundled up quite adequately.

Almost immediately we spied several Ring-billed gulls flying lazily overhead and marked them down on our capture sheet with a No.2 pencil.  It appeared as if only a couple of others had ventured out ahead of us to snow-shoe with their dog or dogs; for the trail ahead soundlessly told that tale in the freshly fallen snow.  With our heads on a swivel and ears perked up we trundled slowly east along the south bank of the Menominee River.  Robert thought he heard a Belted kingfisher and paused to listen.  Barbara and I stopped too and were rewarded by also hearing the clattering call of one.  Of all the times I had done the CBC; I had not heard one, and found this to be an exceptional tic-mark on our sheet.

Black-capped chickadees and White-breasted nuthatches flitted overhead while we all spotted a Red-tailed hawk soaring tree-top level over the river to the northeast.  The river was mostly frozen over in long stretches, but was somewhat open in others.  The water flowed by quite rapidly in these unfrozen stretches and dozens of Mallard ducks could be seen both in the frigid water and along the frozen edges of ice.  A mighty CSX locomotive lumbered past on the east-bound tracks; causing birds to be disrupted from the treetops with its low-pitched, thrumming engine . We saw a man and his dog walking on the north bank as we continued or push towards the Harmonee Avenue parking lot.  As we walked alongside a short section of railroad track we spied a man pushing a bicycle in the snow, coming towards us.  We said hello to the guy who explained that we was "out here to see how the snow would be for a bike ride." I personally marvel at this type of temporary insanity and wonder how a tree-caused concussion could ever be worth the struggle.

Birds weren't terribly abundant, but we saw enough as we walked to make it interesting and worthwhile.  At the lot we turned back west but stayed on the north side of the river along the parkway and walked into the fairly brisk wind. This made it feel considerably more cold on the exposed skin and also caused noses and eyes to water as we walked back towards where we had parked the two cars.  It was just over an hour and we had tallied a good number of birds including European starlings, Hairy woodpeckers, Red-bellied woodpeckers, Dark-eyed juncos, American robins and Mourning doves to name a few. We climbed into our cars and drove a short distance east along the (under construction) State Street to the Hart Park parking lot. Here we began to walk back west when me heard more Belted kingfisher noises.  At a spot in the open water we were treated to another three birds!  Males and females with their cinnamon-brown chest patches clattered and darted back and forth over a particularly short span of open river.  We stood and watched for a few minutes before moving on.

Female Belted Kingfisher staring at the river, surrounded by snow
We turned to the south and up the formidable Dewey Street hill and then down a large sledding hill that the locals called "suicide hill" due to the one enormous oak in the middle of the sled run.  Fathers were dragging all manner of sledding appliance back up the steep slope with their happy, giggling children tagging along behind. We encountered a large flock of 15 Mourning doves at the top of the hill before we descended and I added them to our count sheet.  The sidewalks along Honey Creek parkway were not plowed so we were forced to walk carefully and alertly on the salt-slushy roadway.  More juncos, chickadees, robins and doves; along with House finches made their presence known on the count sheet as we walked back across the walking bridge and to the waiting cars.  We did manage to count our first beautiful male Northern cardinal of the day, along with a few female companions.  The next stop was to drive to the Jacobus Park area.  There we logged more woodpeckers amongst the virgin timber high above our heads.  Overall, there wasn't too much shakin' in the park, but we did a broad sweep nonetheless.

The real deal was when we moved eastward to where Robert knew of a woman who was a voracious feeder of wildlife.  Her bird feeders and yard yielded nearly countless numbers of all the species we had already tallied; but in far greater amounts.   The open water of the river at this location also offered up hundreds of Mallards and lord knows whatever else may have been lurking in amongst them. The bird feeders and shrubbery in the front and back of her home were teeming with avian life attempting to get to some of the banquet of seeds and suet she had provided.  We gleefully chalked up dozens and dozens of birds before deciding to leave for a pit-stop at Taco Bell on North Avenue in Wauwatosa.  By the way; do try their new Steakhouse's meaty, cheesy and fantastic!

With the daylight quickly fading the sky had taken on the customary Milwaukee winter gray.  Snow had begun to lightly fall in the form of tiny Styrofoam beads due to the colder temperature.  I dropped Barbara off at home to get a few things done and I met Robert in front of his home for another hour of walking and counting.  We set off again on foot in the direction of Doyne Park and the Oak Leaf Trail.  Woodpeckers, chickadees and juncos were the only birds still moving as we walked along the river.  Numerous graffiti tags colorfully festooned the south facade of a forgotten building across the water, and a front end loader noisily scraped the gravel of a service road as its operator cleared the snow.  We tramped through drifts on our side of the river towards the I-175 / Lisbon Avenue bridge in search of whatever might make itself known to be tallied.  The open area on top of the lower pathway is what constituted Doyne Park and golf course.  Robert explained that long ago it used to be a county landfill.  This was evident by the three off-gassing vents that stuck out of the snow and lined one side of what would have been a sidewalk, had it not been completely covered with snow.  Apparently these were there to monitor what still might be escaping from below the surface of the ground.

Aside from a thick tangle of shrubbery sticks containing dozens of House sparrows, not much else was there to be counted.  Robert and I walked back to his home and bid farewell for his portion of the CBC had ended.  It was almost 2:45 and he had errands to run.  I jumped back into the Ford Escape and drove to Hawthorne Glen to see what might be there.  The snow was steadily falling when I arrived.  Moms with their little kids were near and on the snow-covered playground equipment when I entered the fencing surrounding the property.  I walked towards the Nature Center in the center of the grounds and spotted two Whitetail does munching twigs and leaves in a protected area of the glen.  They didn't seem to be all that concerned about my presence.  I did a long, wide sweep of the perimeter along the treeline looking for whatever birds might have been there.  Only a few gulls flew just low enough and under the blanket of gray clouds to be seen.  I waded through the deep snow back to the car and left.

I did some slow-driving through the Washington Highlands in a zigzag fashion (back and forth through the neighborhoods)  with the driver's side window down to listen.  The snow was falling quite heavily and no birds could either be seen nor heard.  I decided to call it a day and pointed the Ford north to bring our team's count results to the group that was assembling at the Schlitz Audubon Center. Traffic was incredibly slow due to the wintery conditions and to the fact that most people should not even be on the roads when they are not 100% dry.  I grew up in Northern Wisconsin and am quite used to operating a car in snow.  There were eight people at the center when I arrived.  I recognized our count coordinator, Andrea Szymczak, birders Judith Huf, Marilyn Bontly and Scott Diehl.  They were gathered around one of the two large wooden tables in what is called the "Hearth Room."  There was a fire in the fire place and snacks on a smaller table.  Papers were circulating and conversation about what was seen and not seen as I tallied up the two sheets I had been using onto the one official results sheet.

All told, Andrea's circle had accounted for 56 species seen and tallied.  Our group was congratulated for having seen the kingfishers in such numbers.  Our count tallied 22 species of birds.  I felt good about out effort on this day and was pleased with the results.  It was great to be out in nature doing something I enjoy and wonderful to have been counting with Barbara and Robert.  We all said we'd want to do it again next year.  Perhaps other will wish to spend a Saturday with us?

Here's the results of our count

The puffy American robin waits in the cold

The Birdstud in all his glory!

Rock Doves (AKA Pigeons) on the wires behind our house

Frozen Mallards on the bank

House sparrow on a branch

Robert Massey brings a story of a sighting