For bird watchers in Greene County, the weather on Dec. 21 and 28 caused a real shortage of birds to be seen or heard for the 2013 Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
“Ryerson count was a rainy miserable day on the road. Birds were just not seen, making it the worst count in 15 years,” organizer Marjorie Howard of the Ralph K. Bell Bird Club noted. “Dec. 21 was cloudy, with temperatures between 57 and 62 degrees and it rained all day. You couldn’t even have your window down to hear them.”
Still, the birds that were spotted in the Ryerson Count, a 15-mile circle that includes Ryerson Station State Park and a corner of West Virginia, were a fair representation of those that winter over in Western Pennsylvania, Howard said. “We saw 42 species and counted 1,664 individual birds. But when I went out with Larry Helgerman for the Washington County Buffalo Creek Count on Dec. 15 there was snow on the ground and we saw 65 species and counted 7,226 individuals. Weather does make a difference and snow helps you see the birds.”
The annual Audubon bird count depends on volunteers like Howard, Helgerman and thousands of others across the Northern Hemisphere to brave all kinds of weather except the truly dangerous between Dec. 15 and Jan. 5 to record as many birds and species as they can find within 15-mile counting circles in one 24-hour period.
Greene County has two such circles that take in both the western hills and eastern river habitats of the county. Each attracts its own neighborhoods of birds that are either hunkered down for winter or just passing through to be spotted by a trained eye or ear. The count is a freeze-frame of where the birds are on a grand, planetary scale. Audubon has been taking these snapshots and analyzing the data ever since ornithologist Frank Chapman and 26 friends went out to count, rather than shoot birds for sport on Christmas day, 1900.
Ralph Bell, whose family farm straddles the postal line between Clarksville and Jefferson, did what he’s loved doing for decades. On Dec. 28 he bundled up, grabbed his books and papers and headed out early in the morning to count birds in the Clarksville circle. Fellow birder Llew Williams had driven up from Morgantown to walk Bell’s farm looking for its feathered residents but at age 98, Bell was content to do his counts from a vehicle with heated seats, driving slowly with the windows down on back roads, across old bridges and through forgotten coal towns.
It was sunny but a cold wind was blowing and there was no snow to offer contrast. Still, there were birds to be seen and heard in thickets and back yards, nuthatches, junkets and crows, cardinals, blue jays, song sparrows and house sparrows, each with its distinctive call.
Two mocking birds made a sudden appearance, dancing from branch to branch in a big tree, flashing the white bands on tail and wing that identified them. Bell nodded, satisfied. “Mocking birds. I’ve seen them here before. They nest here.”
From the back seat, Jerry Wolfe added his verifying voice, and then added two mockingbirds to the list. Every bit of habitat along these roads has had decades of bird sightings by Bell and his fellow counters. It was not a great count day, but Bell didn’t seem worried. Count or no count, he knows who nests in his neighborhood and where, and can identify them by the sounds they make.
“I’ve always had to listen harder because I’m colorblind,” Bell explained.
The Clarksville circle includes Ten Mile Creek where it flows into the Monongahela River and creates rich habitat for ducks, herons, kingfishers and other aquatic birds. Black Dog Hollow Road winds up from the Monongahela River near Fredericktown then wanders past the scattered houses of Sandy Plains.
Stopping at one neat little house, Bell knocked on the door of Delores Doman, a cheerful, energetic octogenarian with numbers from her backyard to add to the count. Her birdfeeder was a fine affair, fastened two stories up to the outside of her kitchen window.
“Nicholas Teagarden made this for me and he put it up, too. It’s his Eagle Scout project. I guess I got it because I’m an old lady” Doman said, grinning. “I can put feed through the window and really see the birds up close. Last summer a mother woodpecker brought her babies here so they could eat and I watched them grow up. Everyone should have a feeder like this.”
Bird numbers hinge on access to food or shelter and some factors were noticeable during the hours of driving. “There used to be birdfeeders here,” Bell pointed out in yard after yard. Passing a deserted farm he pointed noted, “There used to be birds all around this barn, when they had livestock. There used to be rock doves lining the barn roof.”
Scanning the edge of one expansive field, Bell sounded surprised. “What happened to the bluebird boxes, Jerry?”
“The lady who bought this place told me to take them down because she said the birds were pooping on her car,” Wolfe explained from the back seat.
“You should have told her to stop parking under trees,” Bell retorted dryly.
Other birders were out today, covering their designated vectors, some up before dawn and out after dark to catch the sound of owls.
“The biggest issue for rural circles is the number of people out looking. Unless you have the people, you don’t count your circle accurately,” Hagerman of the Brooks Bird Club explained. He and other club members make the rounds of regional Christmas counts and lend their expertise to assure the identification process is accurate.
‘We do at least four counts a season and spreading count days out allows qualified birders to help cover the region. We go out no matter what and we don’t just drive the roads. When it rains we’re in full Gortex and we’re dry. You have to beat the bushes to count birds,” Helgerman said.
Going out by car or walking the field with someone who really knows his or her birds is a good way to get started as a serious birder. But Helgerman points out that learning to identify all the birds that come to your feeder is a first step you can take yourself,
“I tell people that 90 percent of the birds you’ll ever see around here come to your feeder. Sometimes a field guide to the United States can be confusing, so I’ve made a poster of the birds you’ll see and that’s a good place to start. Go outside and listen to them. After you’ve heard them three or four times, you’ll know what they sound like. Look, listen and learn.”
Visit www.audubon.org and search for the Christmas bird count, then find Clarksville, Ryerson and Buffalo Creek in the Pennsylvania section.