[subtitled: "A long, and overdue, post about What I Did Last Sunday."]
If you are a birder in Cincinnati, you might think of the Cincinnati Bird Club when you see the acronym CBC, and you'd be right. But, for birders all over North America, CBC stands for Christmas Bird Count.
Begun by the Audubon Society as an alternative to the practice of going out on Christmas Day to shoot all the birds one could, Christmas Bird Counts encourage birder camaraderie and citizen science. Birders unite to cover a specific geographic area in an all-day effort to see and count as many birds as possible. This means not just finding lots of different species, but also counting each individual bird of that species.
Christmas Bird Counts aren't usually held on Christmas Day, but sometime during the three weeks before or after Dec. 25. There are at least 8 CBC's in the Cincinnati area, and interested birders can usually attend at least one. Some dedicated CBC'ers do several counts.
This is the third year I have participated in a CBC. In 2006, I helped at both the Cincinnati count and also the East Fork Lake Christmas Bird Count. Last year and this year, the East Fork CBC has been held on a Saturday when I worked, so I was unable to go out with them.
A count circle is 15 miles in diameter and is broken up into a number of smaller sections, the size of which depend on the habitat to be covered and the number of volunteers available. In addition, people who feed birds within the count circle can participate as Feeder Watchers, merely by counting the number of birds they see and reporting the results to the circle's compiler.
The Cincinnati CBC is divided into 9 groups. One of these includes Camp Dennison (aka "Grand Valley,") a spot you have heard Susan and I talk about, and our best source for ducks. Another includes Armleder Park, well-known for grassland species and raptors. The Cincinnati Nature Center is in the circle, and has their own group of counters. Our part of the count circle includes southwestern Clermont and southeastern Hamilton counties in Ohio as well as a sliver of Campbell County in northern Kentucky, where these counties border the Ohio River.
Each major section is then broken into smaller hot spots, and groups of 2 to 4 people are assigned to these areas by the section leader to best cover the territory. Since 2006, I have been in section leader Susan Wilkinson's small group, along with her husband, Dave, and an elderly gentleman named Jim. We meet at 7:30am at Steamboat Rd, along the Ohio River, where there is a campground managed by Hamilton County Parks.
We start out by checking the river, even though we never see anything there, then begin walking down the long road from east to west.
Although you can't see the wind here, I think you can tell how bad it was by the way we were bundled up. There were white caps on the Ohio River, and the wind was buffeting our faces. Tears ran from my eyes, and I began to doubt the wisdom of this adventure.
But, just a little bit away from the river and protected by the tree line, it wasn't so bad, and once the sun rose, the day took a turn for the better. When we got into sparrow territory, I was in heaven.
We went "off-road" to beat our way through this field, and found tons of Song and White-throated Sparrows, lots of Eastern Towhees, and even 2 Swamp Sparrows. ("I identified them first," she said, smugly.)
More looking, and listening, and counting. The wind made it tough to hear calls, and most of the birds stayed hunkered down in the low weeds and shrubs, adding to our ID problems.
Shortly after this photo, Susan called us over to confirm her "Purple" Finches. Although they were only House Finches, it was still another species to add to our trip list.
While we looked up at the tree tops, debating the shade of red on the "purple" finch (Never use color to separate male House Finches from Purple Finches. Instead, look for streaking on the breast and sides. Any streaks at all and you can rule out the more rare Purple Finch and put your ID firmly in the House Finch camp.), we saw a large, dark bird soaring overhead along the river, approaching our location. As it got nearer, we gasped. "Immature Bald Eagle!" I shouted out, and our senior statesman, Jim, confirmed this was a second-year bird. Sweet! My first contender for Best Bird of the Day.
Somewhere around noon, most CBC counters meet to regroup, have lunch, get the morning totals, assess the progress of the count and redistribute the effort. Some people drop out after the morning's work, and occasionally are replaced by the afternoon shift, people who prefer church or their pillow to working the early hours. For some reason, it seems that most of these lunch meetings are held at a McDonald's.
For our afternoon session, three of us moved to Northern Kentucky. (Jim had to leave at the lunch break.) We first stopped by Coney Island to get a look at the Combs-Hehl Bridge, the I-275 bridge over the Ohio River. We were not disappointed. The resident Peregrine Falcon was perched high atop the structure, and as we stared at him through the scope, we gleefully added another "special" bird to our list. (Susan will be proud to know that we flagrantly disregarded a "No Trespassing" sign to bag this bird.) The Peregrine was my second contender for Best Bird.
After crossing into Kentucky, we drove east along the Ohio River on KY SR 8, the Mary Ingles Highway. (If you aren't familiar with Mary Draper Ingles, read "Follow the River," by James Alexander Thom.) This was the first time I had done the Kentucky part of this section, and I was curious to see what we might find.
We first pulled off next to a small park and began walking a gravel road where Dave and Susan said they often got good sparrow species. The habitat didn't look too great and the neighborhood was pretty sketchy. There were heaps of debris and log piles lining the road, and I didn't hold out too much hope. In fact, I left my camera in the car. (Big mistake.) As we picked our way around the huge, rain-filled potholes in the road, a grumpy old man came out of his house to stare at us, then went back in. I figured he was calling the police.
Coming from the other direction was a second, younger man on a cell phone, with his Shar Pei dog. Great. We are going to be mauled by a dog, then shot, then left to drown in a pothole in Kentucky, just for looking at birds.
Second Man wasn't so grumpy, and when we told him we were just walking the road to look for birds he let us go. As he walked up to report to his neighbor, he shook his head at our odd behavior.
Suddenly, a tiny, brown bird moved in the leaves below a wood pile along the edge of the road. It was a wren, but not a Carolina Wren. I called out: "A wren here. I think, no, yes, yes it is - A Winter Wren!" Susan and Dave rushed over. The wren was being typically uncooperative, but Susan got a glimpse before it disappeared. "I think you're right," she said. Dave was sure it was a Carolina, our default wren in the winter time in this area. "No, no," I insisted, "It was definitely not a Carolina. It was too small, too dark, and without the prominent eyeline." "Then, it must be a late House Wren," he opined. "I suppose it could be," I conceded, "but I'm sure about its tiny, upright tail. That was a Winter Wren tail."
We worked that little bird for a good 15 minutes, until it finally came out in the open and scolded us. There was no doubt about the ID. A Winter Wren indeed! Definitely Best Bird of the Day!
The reason I am so psyched about this find is that I saw my first Winter Wren just this fall, at Cape May. At the time, I counted it as a new Life Bird, but when I checked my records, I discovered that our Winter Wren is the exact same bird as the one the British simply refer to as the Wren. I had seen this same species, Troglodytes troglodytes, the "little cave dweller," in Scotland. Ah, so - not, in fact, an actual Life Bird. Well, at least a new bird for the USA and darned cute, to boot.
Before heading back down the road, Susan called us over to where she was glassing a small sluggish backwater, hoping for ducks. (We never get any ducks.) "I think I see a muskrat," she began, "or maybe a beaver." Dave and I rushed over. It was a beaver, swimming around without concern, going about his little beaver chores. Cool! Definitely the Best Mammal of the Day!
On the way out, Grumpy Old Man stopped us with a loud "Hey!" He proceeded to tell us that we had no business being there and that "if the owner caught us, we would be in trouble." Susan thanked him and wished him a pleasant day. Old crab!
A stop at a grain elevator, where Dave and Susan have often added to their totals by counting the birds feeding on spilled grain, was thwarted by this locked gate and a number of "No Trespassing" signs.
We had already violated similar signs twice before, but our run-in with Grumpy Old Man put even Dave on alert, and he concluded that maybe we should just work the surrounding area, and not break the law yet again. We had lovely views of two Red-tailed Hawks (numbers 5 & 6 for me) and a terrific Pileated Woodpecker, my second of the day.
Our final stop was at St. Ann's Convent, in Sliver Grove, KY. If you saw the movie "Rain Man," you will remember St. Ann's as the exterior location used for "Walbrook," the institution where Dustin Hoffman's character "Raymond" lives.
Unfortunately, the beautiful stately old trees that once lined the long driveway had to be cut down. They have been replaced, but the look is not the same.
My section leader, Susan, is a good birder and a great organizer, but I think she feels that bathroom breaks are an indulgence, and an extravagant waste of time when doing a Christmas Bird Count. So, my claim to fame is that I peed among the cedars and other evergreens on St. Ann's property. (Ssshh! Don't tell!)
At the end of the day, diehards from each group meet for the Grand Tally. This is the time to find out how many species the entire count circle found, if your group was the only one to have a Peregrine Falcon or Bald Eagle (For the record, there was one other immature Bald Eagle and one other Peregrine, but only our group had both.), and to see what surprises were found. This year, there was an Orange-crowned Warbler at a feeder in Hyde Park and a Harris's Sparrow at a turf farm, both new birds for our count records.
Rare birds may be added to the count by staking out a known bird or by serendipity. The warbler had been present at a peanut feeder for two weeks, and the person in charge of that area had the homeowner call him on Sunday to tell him if/when he saw the bird. The call came in and the counter zipped up to tick off the bird, and take a photo for proof, before continuing his tally. The sparrow was a shock to everyone, including the finder, a guest birder from Maryland who asked to come along on our count. He was watching two different sparrows on a sapling when a third sparrow just happened to land next to them. By its size, he knew he was onto something new, and he made careful mental notes about it. When he described it to other birders, everyone was stunned. We listened to his story and took a vote. Accepted!
If you have never done a Christmas Bird Count, I encourage you to try one. You don't have to commit to the whole day, and you don't have to be an expert birder to help. If you know which end of the binoculars to look through and can tell a hawk from a sparrow, you can be part of the team.
At first, I was afraid I wouldn't be good enough for a CBC, or that I wouldn't have the energy or interest to do a full day. In 2005, I tested the waters by doing a half-day Winter Bird Count, run by the Clermont County Parks department. "Winter Counts" are unofficial, non-Audubon sanctioned counts, which don't contribute to the national totals, but which still are fun and useful.
In 2006, I got up the nerve to volunteer for the Cincinnati and East Fork counts. In 2007, the weather was crappy and the birding was slow, so I bailed out after the lunch break. This year, I went the whole day, and really enjoyed myself, despite the bitter cold wind, the Grumpy Old Man and the lack of indoor plumbing. The Grand Total for the day was 92 species. Personally, I ended up with 38 species of birds, plus a beaver. I'm already looking forward to next year.