Woods and waters: Christmas Bird Count – just another way to enjoy the outdoors

State College birder Nick Bolgiano was watching a southern area of Raystown Lake as the cover of darkness slowly lifted.

“I like to get out at daybreak because that is when things happen,” Bolgiano related. “I was watching a large group of tundra swans, Canada geese and common mergansers on the water, when a young bald eagle swooped down and things got crazy — with birds flying everywhere.”

Bolgiano’s experience is one of many that were shared across the state and the United States as tens of thousands of birders participated in the National Audubon Society’s 2012 Christmas Bird Count. Official count circles, each 15 miles in diameter, are delineated all across the United States, with approximately 70 active circles in Pennsylvania and nearly 2000 in the U.S.

This was the 113th year for the Christmas Bird Count - the longest-running wildlife assessment of its type. Local organizers select a date, usually on a weekend day and sometime between December 14 and January 5, inclusive. Bolgiano’s early morning Raystown observation occurred on December 30, when birders surveyed the Raystown Lake area. The State College area count occurred earlier - on December 16, and the Bald Eagle State Park and surrounding area count happened on January 1.

“Each year, volunteers brave snow, wind, or rain, to take part in the Christmas Bird Count, and they have made enormous contributions to bird conservation continent-wide while doing so,” commented Dan Brauning, Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Division chief.

The birding weather this year was comparatively good for the Raystown and Bald Eagle counts, but State College counters faced nasty winds, which hampered viewing.

Alex Lamoreaux, from Pine Grove Mills, was one of the bird counters who began his route well before dawn — with owling.

“Josh Lefever and I met up a little after 4 a.m., and drove over to Bear Meadows. The gradual change in elevation and shift in habitats makes the Galbraith Gap, Bear Meadows, and Alan Seeger areas some of the best owling in Centre County,” Lamoreaux explained.

“At our first two stops to try to lure in some owls, the high winds made our efforts futile. We decided to continue farther along the route and looked for spots with more understory to block the wind. At a cabin about halfway up to Bear Meadows, we pulled over and tried calling in an eastern screech-owl. A few minutes later, we had a screech-owl doing its monotone-trill call about 30 feet away from the car,” Lamoreaux said. “We drove up the road a little ways and I pulled over again to try for saw-whet or screech owls. No luck with saw-whet, but when I turned on the lights on my car to move to the next spot, a gray screech-owl was perched right in front of us.”

The data collected through the Christmas Bird Count and other citizen-science efforts allows wildlife researchers, biologists and others to study the long-term status and health of bird populations across North America. Some of the data goes back over 100 years. In Centre County, compiler Jim Dunn shared the State College circle data going back to 1940. That is 63 years of local CBC data.

Examining the State College circle data is interesting, and many stories can be found in those numbers. For example, wild turkeys were absent or sporadic in the count until 2001, and now they are common-place.

The ups and downs of the ruffed grouse population can also be seen, with peaks in 1952-54, 1985-86, and 1993-95. As most small game hunters know, Pennsylvania’s grouse population is low today — that is also reflected in the data, with counters in three of the past five years drawing blanks.

Evening grosbeaks used to be regular winter visitors, but only one has been spotted in the State College circle since 1997. On the other hand, the population of red-bellied woodpeckers has been moving north into Pennsylvania and multiplying. The first red-belly showed up in the State College CBC in 1968. Double digits were achieved in 1984, and in recent years, it has been commonplace for 40 to 60 to be tallied in the circle. According to Dunn, a record 69 were counted in 2011.

For the past five years, my family and I have participated in the CBC, by counting in the Marsh Creek Valley — part of the Bald Eagle State Park circle. We look forward to doing it every year.

Dark-eyed juncos were our top species this year, with 197 counted during our morning of birding. We also had a new high for blue jays — 55.

We spotted 52 wild turkeys at the base of Richner Hollow, within the count circle. However, we were actually delayed in starting our official count this year because we stopped to count the birds in two very large flocks of turkeys just outside the count circle — one flock contained more than 100 birds. Now that is a flock of turkeys.

Nothing is prettier than the eastern bluebirds that we watched — their blue feathers and orange breasts almost seemed to glow on that cloudy New Year’s Day. My personal highlight of the day was spotting a new bird for my lifetime list — a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Dunn, Lamoreaux, Bolgiano and Bald Eagle compiler Bob Snyder are all experienced birders, but Brauning noted that the CBC is a good way to introduce beginners to bird identification. It is much easier to find birds through your binoculars when there are few leaves on the trees to hide them from view.

“There are fewer bird species around in winter than at other times of year, so it is easier to learn bird species identification,” Brauning said. “Also, birds are easier to spot because the trees lack the leaves that hide birds from your eyes in spring and summer. In fact, many birders got started in this hobby in winter in a car with more experienced birders on a Christmas count. CBC allows for mentoring in the field.”

The next big citizen-science bird count is the Great Backyard Bird Count, which will be held February 15-18.

This is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society.

Visit either organization’s website for more details. Participation in the bird counts is free.