My first Christmas Bird Count

Pine Grosbeak

This year the Audubon Christmas Bird Count celebrates its 121st year. Counting birds at Christmas became a tradition in the year 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed it as an alternative to the annual Christmas side hunt, a competition in which two different teams killed “practically everything in fur or feathers that crossed their path”. The idea of wildlife conservation was just beginning to take hold around the turn of the 20th century, and Chapman seemed optimistic that burgeoning criticism of the side hunt was a sign that the unnecessary slaughter of hundreds of non-game birds was coming to an end. Chapman asked readers of the journal Bird Lore (the predecessor of Audubon Magazine) to spend some of their time on Christmas Day conducting a census of the birds in their area and send the results to him for publication in February. During that first Christmas Bird Count, 27 enthusiastic birders from two provinces and thirteen states tallied 90 species. Counts took place in New Brunswick, Ontario, a handful of northeastern states, Missouri, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, and California. In most cases, there was only one observer per count!

Today the Christmas Bird Count is held in more than 2,600 different areas with more than 81,000 observers and takes place throughout the Americas. Each area focuses on a circle 15 miles (24 kilometers) in diameter, with observers travelling through woods, urban, and agricultural areas or counting birds at their feeders. The counts are usually organized by local birding clubs, which then submit their results to their national birding organization (in our case, Birds Canada) which in turn compiles all results for submission to the National Audubon Society. Instead of focusing on Christmas Day, the count now takes place any time during the count period, normally between December 14 and January 5. Once a date is selected, the count takes place regardless of weather – and here in Ottawa, this can range from -40°C Arctic temperatures to blizzards to freezing rain.

This is the longest-running citizen science project in North American, and while Ottawa has held a count for 100 of those years, the Richmond Christmas Bird Count has only been around for four. The Richmond count area falls within my backyard, so when one of the sector leaders asked if I would be willing to help out this year, I agreed.

Richmond Count Circle 2020

I have long avoided Christmas Bird Counts partly because I worry about committing to something with ongoing health issues that could affect how long I am able to stay out, and mostly because I hate winter. I don’t tolerate the cold well and don’t enjoy being out in the frigid, biting wind or driving in white-out conditions. As a result, I find it difficult to commit to something weeks in advance without knowing what the weather will be. Fortunately we’ve had a fairly mild early December, with all the snow melting and water remaining mostly open until only a few days ago. While the drop in temperature last week was expected (though unwanted), the high of -4°C and 30% of flurries predicted for count day didn’t sound bad at all. I signed up for some early morning owling at 5:30 am (thankfully the meet-up spot was only a five-minute drive away!) and planned to spend the rest of my morning in the Stony Swamp trails of sector 4b.

Sector 4

Because I’m still working from home I’ve been able to get out occasionally in the morning to do some advance scouting in our sector. The newly-filled feeders at Jack Pine Trail seemed promising, and there was still open water in the northern-most pond of the Eagleson ponds on Friday night before the count. Both redpolls and a Red-tailed Hawk have been hanging around the ponds recently, and I hoped that the hawk I saw on December 6th and 12th would still be around the second pond – it has been perching on the telephone wire where the kingfisher likes to perch in the summer, although last weekend the crows drove it away and it landed on a balcony of the retirement home across the street.

Red-tailed Hawk (December 12, 2020)

Unfortunately, our early morning owling was a bust despite the excellent conditions – there was no wind at all, no sign of any flurries, and the -12°C temperature did not seem that bad while walking. Our sector leader, Derek, chose a trail where he had recently seen some fresh whitewash. Six of us armed with flashlights and headlamps headed out into the darkened woods where one of our members gave convincing imitations of Northern Saw-whet Owl, Eastern Screech Owl, and Barred Owl calls. Nothing responded. We finished at about 6:30 and then my partner Bree and I headed out to two additional trails to try some more owling before it got light. We tried Sarsaparilla Trail first, since I had seen a Barred Owl there only two weeks ago. I got to do the owl imitations (my first time ever doing them in public!) while Bree kept count using eBird. The only bird we heard was a Common Redpoll flying over. We then tried the Rideau Trail at P6, which has a lot of excellent small-owl habitat. It was light enough then to see without using the headlamps, and again the only bird we heard was a pair of redpolls flying over. A few chickadees greeted us as we left, so we started our formal count back at Sarsaparilla.

The water, of course, was entirely frozen – this is always the first pond to freeze over once the temperature drops below 0°C – so we saw no waterfowl. The American Tree Sparrows I had last seen hanging out near the boardwalk were gone, and we heard no finches whatsoever. A raven, a cardinal, and three Mourning Doves were the only highlights of our stop there – the Mourning Doves because these were the only ones found in our sector. (Note: I took my camera out only once during the day but took zero photos, so all of the photos in this post are of older images).

Mourning Dove (December 2015)

From there we drove to Old Quarry Trail where it was our task to cover as much ground as possible. We had discussed leaving one car at P6 and walking there, but we both had reservations about the long walk as we were both feeling chilled and running on very little sleep. So we decided to spend our time exploring the numerous side trails and secret walking paths of the trail system where we wouldn’t be too far from the cars if we needed to go back. We first headed to the crabapple spot where I was hoping to find the robins, waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks from last weekend. We found a dozen robins flitting in the trees along the path, but once we got to the main tree where all the other berry-eaters had been only six days ago we found nothing. All 130 Bohemian Waxwings, the single Cedar Waxwing, and both Pine Grosbeaks were nowhere to be seen. Even the starlings, normally found on the hydro wires and buildings nearby, were absent. This was a disappointment, as the crabapples at Old Quarry Trail have been the best spot to find berry-eating species this winter. Fortunately, a White-winged Crossbill flying over made it worth the stop, giving its characteristic “meep-meep” calls. This is the first year this species has been recorded on the Richmond Christmas Bird Count, so we were excited to hear it.

Bohemian Waxwings (December 13, 2020) – not seen in our sector

We headed into the woods from there, and heard a single Brown Creeper calling. Stony Swamp is usually a good spot to find these cryptic birds in the winter, but their calls are so soft and so high-pitched that many probably go undetected. We were just crossing the boardwalk through the marsh, talking, when I heard a quick chip note that sounded similar in tone to that of a red squirrel. On my last visit to the trail on Sunday, I had spent some time at the bridge on the other side of the marsh looking for a Winter Wren that had been photographed there. When I heard the chip note, Bree and I started pishing to see if we could confirm it was the wren. It had fallen silent, so I used some playback to confirm it was the Winter Wren (playback is allowed to confirm presence on the bird count). It started giving its angry “dit-dit” calls and hopped out into the open once. Rare here in the winter, I took my camera out of my bag to try to photograph it but it immediately vanished into the cattails again. They breed here in the summer, as the Stony Swamp trails are full of excellent habitat – there are lots of downed trees and logs, and plenty of tangles and understory vegetation with swamps and streams nearby. It doesn’t surprise me that this one was still here, as they are able to survive our winters and this one has been mild with only a couple of days of deep snow which quickly melted.

Winter Wren (April 2017)

In the woods we found little except chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches. We heard no finches, and couldn’t even find a woodpecker to track down – both Bree and I were secretly hoping to find a Black-backed Woodpecker for the count, as Old Quarry Trail is a repeat site for this northern species. We headed to the bridge where we found our only American Tree Sparrow of the day before proceeding to the northern alvar where I’ve had turkeys and sparrows in the past. Except for a few more White-breasted Nuthatches it was quiet. Then we saw a flock of songbirds fly by in tight formation, heading south. My immediate thoughts ran to starlings or waxwings, but they were silent, and the distance and overcast light made it difficult to get a good look. On a hunch we returned to the crabapple site, but once again it was quiet – even the robins were gone.

We followed the trails deeper into the trail system, adding three Dark-eyed Juncos, a flyover Common Redpoll, two Blue Jays, a ton of crows, and more chickadees and White-breasted Nuthatches. After about 90 minutes into our walk I was surprised we were still missing all three regular woodpecker species, Common Raven, goldfinch, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. One of our best finds occurred on a small side trail when we heard a group of agitated chickadees, and followed the sounds until we noticed a Barred Owl flying off! Bree got a better look at it than I did, but we were both thrilled to finally see an owl during the count.

Barred Owl (January 2018)

We finished our final loop of the trail, then headed over to the crabapple trees to check for waxwings and grosbeaks one last time before finishing our count. On our way we finally added Hairy Woodpecker to the day’s list when Bree spotted two on a tree trunk. We then heard a single Pine Grosbeak calling, and I spotted it perched atop the bare branches of a deciduous tree! Then we noticed a small flock of birds flying toward the large crabapple tree. When we arrived, there were at least ten Pine Grosbeaks feeding on the seeds within the fruit – with more in the tamarack trees in the distance. Bree stopped to take some pictures, but I didn’t bother as the sky was dark, and I had gotten some better photos on a sunny day not too long ago. Like my previous two visits, a single adult male Pine Grosbeak was present among all the females (or immatures).

Pine Grosbeak (male) (December 6, 2020)

Pine Grosbeaks (December 6, 2020)

By the time we were done it was 11:20 and I had been going for six hours. I was tired, cold and sore so I called it a day. Bree kept on going by herself, and found some other great birds on her own.

Later that evening Derek sent us the tally for our sector. The results were not entirely surprising, considering the sudden freeze-up earlier in the week, and confirmed a suspicion I’d had: it HAD gotten a lot quieter in the past two weeks. Notable absences:

  • American Black Duck
  • All gulls
  • All hawks and falcons (including the Eagleson Red-tailed Hawk)
  • Northern Shrike (though I don’t see them in the sector often, I have found a few over the years)
  • Snowy Owl (although our sector does cover Greenbank/Fallowfield area which was searched, it doesn’t cover the traditional Snowy Owl areas south Fallowfield)
  • Bohemian Waxwing
  • Evening Grosbeak
  • Purple Finch and Pine Siskin (although I suspect most have moved south as I have not heard any for weeks now)

Notable finds:

  • Winter Wren (2)
  • White-winged Crossbill (2)
  • Great Horned Owl (2)
  • Red-winged Blackbird (1)
  • Ruffed Grouse (2 – I rarely see them in my area anymore)

White-winged Crossbill (February 2009)

The following is a list of birds whose numbers seemed much lower than I expected – I really thought we would have found more of these species in our sector:

  • Rock Pigeon (5). We found four at Hazeldean Mall on our way into Old Quarry Trail, but there have been some in my subdivision, with more along Hazeldean Road for sure.
  • Mourning Dove (3). All of those were at Sarsaparilla. I’d seen seven at Jack Pine Trail a week earlier, and they tend to hang out near the feeder all winter. Where were they?
  • Common Raven (7). We heard none at Old Quarry Trail and one at Sarsaparilla. There’s usually some at the ponds or along Hope Side Road, as well as at other places in Stony Swamp. With a number of large quarries extending from Hope Side Road to Fallowfield I believe several pairs are breeding here.
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch (3). I know most have flown south, but the ones in Stony Swamp are used to being fed and tend to stick around. However, the ones at Old Quarry Trail and Sarsaparilla Trail were absent.
  • House Sparrows (2). It seems there should have been more in the suburban areas.
  • Common Redpoll (96). This seems like a decent number, but I’ve had flocks of 50+ in multiple spots, with smaller flocks flying over from time to time. I would have expected at least 200, but since I have been hearing fewer and fewer flocks and flyovers in the past week perhaps they are moving on.
  • American Tree Sparrow (6). There used to be between 5 and 10 at the Beaver Trail alone, with more at Sarsaparilla, Jack Pine Trail, Old Quarry Trail and the storm water ponds. I’ve noticed a decline recently, for instance, none at the ponds on my last visit, and only three at the Beaver Trail on my last visit.
  • Dark-eyed Junco (26). I shouldn’t be surprised since my own backyard flock has vanished (possibly because I had a cat coming around in October and November – this is the first year in a while that I haven’t had a regular flock of juncos and House Sparrows at my feeders every day) but it seems odd there weren’t that many at Old Quarry Trail and Jack Pine Trail where I used to see lots each winter due to all the homemade feeders. I haven’t even heard any at the ponds, and there are usually some around because of the backyards backing onto the green space (with feeders, I suspect).

Because the lack of sparrows mystified me, and because I suspected the Red-tailed Hawk was still hanging around the ponds, I headed out there after lunch today to see what I could find. As it’s now the day before the solstice and I didn’t leave until 3:00, I was worried about how much time I had before it got dark – especially since it was snowing. I checked for waterfowl in the northern-most pond at Bridgestone; this is the last one to freeze up in the winter, and I’ve often started my year lists here on January 1st to get Canada Geese and mallards. Both were present; it looked like there were about 30 mallards and over 200 Canada Geese. I walked around the ponds, which were pretty quiet. Once I got to the western side I found the large flock of redpolls still feeding on the weedy hill on the other side of Eagleson Road (which isn’t in sector 4) and heard a single chickadee. There were no American Tree Sparrows or juncos in the usual spots. However, I spotted a shape in a tree south of Hope Side and saw the Red-tailed Hawk! Even though count day was over, birds seen three days before and three days after the official count day can still be added to the count week checklist. I saw it again in the same tree on the western side of Eagleson where I’d seen it just over a week ago before it flew to the balcony shown in the photo above. Before heading home I decided to check the waterfowl in the Bridgestone pond one last time since it was getting dark and more geese and ducks were flying in – there were probably 500 geese in that pond alone now. I scanned the water for other species, and was not surprised to see two American Black Ducks. Then I spotted a gorgeous male Wood Duck against the far shore and my jaw dropped!

Wood Duck (November 2017)

A few of these ducks attempt to overwinter in Ottawa every winter, usually at places like Billings Bridge, Strathcona Park, and Mud Lake where they get fed by well-meaning humans. I only see them at the ponds during migration, and never so late in the season. It was a real treat to add it to the count week list, as well as my December list. Even with the cold setting in and bird numbers dwindling, birds like this make it worth going out and seeing what’s around!

My first Christmas Bird Count was a memorable and enjoyable experience. The company was great, the birds were beautiful, and the weather was actually tolerable. We’re still waiting for our compiler to tally the results from all the different sectors, but in the meantime I think I would like to do it again next year!*

*Weather permitting.

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