Counting birds no easy task

  • By C.R. Nelson

    For the Observer-Reporter
January 21, 2013
This red-breasted nuthatch was photographed in western Greene County prior to the Christmas Bird Count. Although this particular bird was not counted, there were 10 red-breasted nuthatches spotted in Ryerson and seven in Clarksville during their respective counts Dec. 15 and 29.

When it comes to counting crows – and other birds to be seen on any given day in early winter – it really depends on the weather. But you don’t have to convince the bird watchers who went out on Dec.15 and 29, 2012. They were in the thick of it, driving in circles or peering at their backyard feeders as citizen scientists, volunteering their time and patience for the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. And for both count days, Mother Nature was in no mood to cooperate.

“I drove all over Jackson Township and only saw a few birds,” Mick McVay of Holbrook said. She and others were out on Dec. 15, driving the back roads within the Ryerson Circle, a 15-mile radius in the western hills of the county and into a sliver of West Virginia, with Ryerson Station State Park its approximate center.

“The weather was clear in the morning and then became partly cloudy with no snow or rain present. Sounds like it should have been a good day for birding, but it was not,” birdwatcher Marge Howard of East View noted.

So where were the birds? Did they sense barometric fluctuations of the real winter weather that was on its way, blustering snow that would nearly ground both birds and birders on the next counting day at the Clarksville Circle on Dec. 29?

For whatever reason, the birds chose to hunker down in the underbrush on Dec.15. It made for some hard birding.

“They weren’t flying and the light was bad for spotting. Birds were picking in the leaves and hard to see, so I went home and counted at my feeders,” McVay said.

And all the usual suspects were there, waiting for her to count them when they swooped in for their afternoon snack of seeds, nuts and suet.

According to Audubon the top 10 species to be found in the area are cardinal, mourning dove, dark eyed junco, American goldfinch, downy woodpecker, blue jay, house finch, tufted titmouse, black-capped chickadee and crow.

Most have increased in number, thanks to the many birdfeeders that are put up in backyards, Ralph Bell of Jefferson noted. As the county’s most senior bird watcher, he is the inspiration for the Ralph K. Bell Bird Club. Members dedicate their time as citizen scientists, not only for the Christmas count, but throughout the seasons.

Bell has kept careful notes of the comings and goings of all things avian in the Jefferson-Clarksville area and elsewhere since 1927. He also helped send Greene County’s first Clarksville Circle tally to Audubon headquarters at Cornell University in 1958. The Christmas count is an annual census that includes all 50 states, every Canadian province, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and some Pacific islands.

The counting began in 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman turned a Southern tradition of going bird hunting on Christmas day into a matter for scientific notation. For 113 years, the data gathered by these yearly snapshots has tracked the health of the global environment reflected in bird populations, and along with that, the weather.

December 29 dawned cold and blustery, with snow and 10 mile per hour winds.

“I called people and told them to stay home and count the birds in their feeders,” Bell said.

Falconer Bill Day of Deemston, Washington County, decided to not take his old friend’s advice. He bundled up at 10 a.m. and took to the snowy roads.

And yes, there were birds to be seen, braving the weather as they searched for food in the circle that has Clarksville as its center and extends to Waynesburg, Paisley, Ruff Creek and parts of West Fayette and Southeast Washington counties.

Day’s bird count day began with a hike around his farm.

“I have 24 blue spruces that I bought from Mr. Bell’s tree farm as Christmas trees and they make a good habitat. I was out about two and a half hours and saw 41 species.”

Day also encountered ravens and got to count the not-so-often seen red-breasted nuthatch. Then he turned his attention to the water bird habitat of the Monongahela River basin.

“I walked along Ten Mile Creek and there was a heron in one of the pools, and two wood ducks. I didn’t see them but I heard their squeals – a male and a female.”

Because of the weather the total number of birds and bird species is down from last year, Howard said. Luckily, Audubon leaves room on the Christmas Count for making note of birds not spotted on the actual day, but seen in whatever numbers three days before and three days after the count.

This year’s list includes the initials ‘cw’ for ‘count week’ beside the great horned owl, the barred owl and the red winged blackbird. One or more of these commonly seen birds were spotted during the count week, but none on count day.

They may not have made the official tally as a number, but the initials let everyone know that they are here, never mind the weather.

For more information about Audubon and its many bird related activities, including the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 17-20, go online to

Download bird count 222



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