Local bird watchers conducted the Fifield-Park Falls Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) Dec. 14. They counted all birds seen or heard within a 15-mile diameter circle centered on the Fifield Post Office.
Eight field workers spent a total of 28 hours covering various habitats along 301 miles of road and walked 4.5 miles on foot counting every bird seen or heard within the count circle. Many people also counted birds seen at their home bird feeders.
The weather for the count was cloudy with light snow flurries in the morning and party sunny with light snow flurries in the afternoon. The winds were from the southwest at 1 to 5 mph. The high temperature for the day was 17 F, the low 5 F. There was 12 inches of snow on the ground with an ice layer about 6 inches from the top of the snow. All water areas were frozen except for small open areas below dams.
This winter observers saw 26 species and 1,510 individual birds, down from recent winters. This compares to 32 species and 2,284 birds in 2012, 29 species and 1,975 birds in 2011, and 33 species and 2,118 birds in 2010.
Here are the species and numbers of each observed on the 2013 Fifield-Park Falls CBC compared with (2012 results):
Gray jay, 0 (1); black-capped chickadee, 514 (606); American crow, 92 (227); European starling, 54 (34); American goldfinch, 238 (134); common redpoll, 6 (238); red-breasted nuthatch, 59 (47); white-breasted nuthatch, 32 (28); evening grosbeak, 0 (20); pine grosbeak, 0 (76); blue jay, 125 (25); ruffed grouse, 9 (12); common raven, 37 (19); rock dove, 81 (188); mourning dove, 105 (122); hairy woodpecker, 27 (16); downy woodpecker, 32 (16); red-bellied woodpecker, 3 (2); pileated woodpecker, 9 (5); purple finch, 4 (24); pine siskin, 1 (45); brown creeper, 2 (5); northern cardinal, 11 (4); wild turkey, 49 (198); American bald eagle, 6 (2); rough-legged hawk, 0 (1); red crossbill, 0 (28); white-winged crossbill, 0 (12); northern shrike, 0 (1); snow bunting, 0 (10); golden-crowned kinglet, 2 (3); Canada goose, 0 (126); dark-eyed junco, 7 (0); white-throated sparrow 4 (0); hooded merganser 1 (0). A rough-legged hawk was seen during the count week, but not the count day.
Bird Count highlights
The influx of northern species we had from Canada last winter was not to be repeated again this winter. Red polls, crossbills, siskins, and grosbeaks were predicted to stay mostly in boreal Canada because of good to excellent conifer cone, mountain ash, birch, and alder seed crops across the region. Indeed, that is exactly what happened.
Our bird count and the Ashland count taken on the same date reported few, if any, of these species. It was only the second time since our count began in 1965 that evening grosbeaks have not been counted.
For the first time since the local bird count started in 1965, no gray jays, a year-round resident, were seen. They have declined steadily in our count area since the early 1990s. Their favorite habitat is the black spruce/tamarack bogs. The species faces a number of recent threats to its preferred habitats including climate change.
Waite and Strickland reported in 2006 that climate change has contributed to a rapidly declining population, studied for about 50 years, of the gray jay at the southern edge of its range in Ontario. Recent warmer autumns apparently rot stored perishable food caches the bird depends upon to survive the winter.
This leads to delayed breeding, reduced reproductive success and sometimes abandonment of territories. As global warming heats up their natural ‘refrigerator’ allowing multiple food caches to rot before they can be used, a range contraction to the north in this species can be expected.
Climate change projections show that the suitable climatic range for black spruce/tamarack could shift 300 miles northward in the next 100 years likely shifting the range of the gray jay northward as well. To complicate matters, milder winters have allowed larch beetles, usually kept in check by very cold temperatures, to kill thousands of tamarack in prime gray jay habitat in Minnesota.
It is obvious that the recent sub-zero weather and deep snows have taken a toll on some birds this winter. Field observers reported very few birds seen in fields and forests. Most birds were seen at, near, or around area bird feeders. Turkey and ruffed grouse numbers were down from last year with some coming into bird feeders to find food.
There is a concern that our recent deep snow of just over a foot with a layer of thick ice in the center may take a toll on our ruffed grouse. When snow is at least 10 inches deep, grouse burrow, or more dramatically, plunge into snow cover from flight. They roost in snow to protect themselves from predators and it is the most effective form of thermal cover for these birds. Inside a snow-burrow, a grouse can heat up the surrounding air to just above freezing, reducing its energy expenditure by 30 percent or more, compared with a grouse in the open.
A female hooded merganser spotted just below Pixley Dam appeared to have a weather-related problem.
It looked like it had an ice cycle hanging from the tip of its beak; the beak is used to catch fish under water. Photos taken of the bird upon later examination showed the beak was completed frozen shut! Of course that wouldn’t allow the bird to eat.
The bird was seen later in the day sitting on a shelf of ice almost under the dam with its head tucked under its feathers. Hopefully body heat melted the ice on its beak. It is only the fourth time a hooded merganser has been seen in the count history.
Mourning doves continue to be seen in amazing numbers at area feeders in recent years with 105 seen this year, but sometimes they have a hard time dealing with our cold winters. Only three mourning doves were counted from 1965-85 after which they began showing up in increasing numbers. Mourning doves have extra fleshy toes that are highly susceptible to frostbite and freezing unlike most birds that can protect themselves from frostbite in a special way.
The blood vessels going into the legs of birds lie right next to the blood vessels leaving the legs. So, as the nice warm blood from the body flows next to the cooler blood leaving the feet, that cooler blood gets heated up before re-entering the body. This prevents more heat from being lost to the cold air then is necessary, which is a key part of not losing cold parts to frostbite.
Blood flow and hiding feet in feathers may not be the whole story of keeping birds free from frostbite. Scales on the feet of a bird are less likely to frostbite than skin is. For instance, we cannot get frostbite on our hair, because our hair is not actually living, much like the scales that cover birds feet and legs.
About the count
The results of the Fifield-Park Falls CBC will be published in the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology’s “The Passenger Pigeon” and placed on the National Audubon Society’s website, www.audubon.org/bird/cbc.
The Fifield-Park Falls CBC is part of a greater effort by the National Audubon Society initiated in 1900 to monitor the health and distribution of resident and winter birds across the Western Hemisphere. Now in its 114th year, the National Audubon Society CBC is now larger than ever, expanding its geographical range and accumulating valuable scientific data about the winter distributions of various bird species.
This work is vital in monitoring the status and health of resident and migratory birds across the Western Hemisphere. More than 100 CBC counts are conducted in Wisconsin each year along with more than 2,300 other counts taken from the Arctic Circle to the south tip of South America by more than 70,000 volunteer bird counters.
The data, 100 percent volunteer-generated, have become a crucial part of the U.S. Government’s natural history monitoring database critical to understanding the health of our bird populations. Count results from 1900 to the present are available through Audubon’s website.
Tom Nicholls of the Fifield Nature Education Center and Kathy Kascewicz of Fifield organized the local CBC. They wish to thank all of the following field workers and feeder watchers who took part in this year’s count:
Mary Lou Nicholls, John, Dave, and Mary Boettcher, Jean and Chris Olson, Linda Bukachek, Carol McLaughlin, Linda Parker, Gayle Stangle, Carol Wollner, Bob Roach, John Severt, Jackie Severt, Joanne Michalski, Sherry Ryther, Jim Roberts, Camille Olson, Steve and Elizabeth Hoecker, Sandy Lentz, Bob Kleinschmidt, Jayne Wade, Dawn Leduc, Jan Olejniczak, Carol Ocker, Rosemary Plant, Karen Knight, Joe Oswald, Dick Wagner, Ann Liebelt, Jon and Angie McNeil, and Arnie Herbst.