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Sunday, December 19, 2010

2010 Forest Grove Christmas Bird Count

We made it down to Portland a couple of days ago, just in time for me to participate in the 111th Christmas Bird Count yesterday with my dad. First thing in the morning we headed out to Forest Grove where we met up with other birders before heading out to our sector. Just like last year, we were assigned to the sector that included Fernhill Wetlands, where we found 61 species during the 2009 count. Of course, our goal this year was to beat that total.

The weather forecast wasn't the greatest and while last year's count started with a beautiful sunrise and sub-freezing temperatures, this year's count started with gray dawn and rain showers. We started at Fernhill wetlands where the first species on the day list included common mergansers, buffllehead, mew gulls, and northern shoveler. As we started making our way around the ponds we added more of the expected species including Canada geese, cackling geese, great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, mallards, and mourning doves.

When we veered away from the main trail back into more of the woodland habitat we found golden-crowned sparrows, a single Eurasian collared-dove, and our only ruby-crowned kinglet of the day. We found a couple of Lincoln's sparrows, which I thought was a great find since it's only the second time I've seen that species (the first time being earlier this year in Haines, Alaska!). We also saw four raptor species including the American kestrel, red-tailed hawk, northern harrier, and bald eagle. Before we finished at the wetlands, we added a fifth, a peregrine falcon.

Back on the main path by the bigger lakes were large flocks of waterfowl, and we found a common teal male in with the green-winged teal as well as a trio of canvasback and hundreds of northern pintail. We also spotted one of our two great egrets for the day. Near the edge of the marsh we also spotted the marsh wren that eluded us last year. In the same grassy habitat we spooked a green heron, which turned out to be the only one seen in the whole count area that day. We also found a few ruddy ducks.

Once we had completed the circuit the weather had cleared up and the sun even came out for a while. We took advantage of the better light to get the scope out and scan the lake for species we might have missed in the pre-dawn light of the early morning. This proved fruitful as we found an eared grebe (year bird #226) to add to our grebe list that already included pied-billed grebe, western grebe, and horned grebe all on the same lake. Greg Gillson, one of the count coordinators, also stopped by, and thanks to his expert birding skills we were able to find a pair of immature Thayer's gulls (year bird #227) among the flock of gulls on the lake. I would never have been able to pick them out on my own - immature gulls are a specialty I haven't even begun to master.

By this point we had spent four hours at Fernhill Wetlands and turned up a respectable 51 species, but we still had a lot more territory to cover by car before dusk. Shortly after leaving the wetlands we found the western meadowlarks we had missed earlier, as well as a flock of estimated 900 tundra swans - by far the most I have ever seen in one place! In right with them was a pair of bald eagles, but apparently the swans knew they were too big for the eagles, since they didn't seem nervous in the least. We also found about 40 killdeer in a farm field a little further along.

With all the rain in recent weeks, there was a lot of flooded land to survey, and in one mixed flock of ducks we found a common x Barrow's goldeneye hybrid, something I've never seen before. It had the flat head and small round white patch on the face of a common goldeneye, but the dark sides and back of a Barrow's goldeneye.

After a quick pit-stop in Gaston, we drove a stretch along Highway 47 which turned up more waterfowl, and then more of the rural back roads where we found species like western scrub-jays, Steller's jays, and spotted towhees. One of our most productive stops of the day was when we pulled over to admire and try to estimate the numbers in this flock of thousands of northern pintail.

No easy task! And not made any easier when some of them decided to take flight:

But it was a pretty phenomenal spectacle:

So, how many pintail were there? Your guess is probably about as good as mine, but we recorded an estimate of 6000. Now that I'm looking at my pictures I think this could easily be an underestimate! While the flock was dominated by pintail, there were a few other species mixed in, none of which stood out as well as these Canada geese:

At the same stop, we also saw some black-capped chickadees, our only fox sparrow of the day, and heard a ring-necked pheasant (year bird #228) that called a couple of times in response to some distant thunder.

It was about three in the afternoon at this point, and with the thickening clouds and early sunsets it was already starting to feel like it was getting dark. We doubled back on a road we had already surveyed planning to take one more look at Fernhill Wetlands, but got delayed to examine what we almost dismissed as another American kestrel but turned out to be a merlin. After seeing many kestrels throughout the day, it's streaky chest and overall darkness distinguished it as being somehow "different", which thankfully caused us to pull over and take a closer look.

Back at Fernhill Wetlands, we decided to take one more look for the swamp sparrow that had been seen there the day before. No luck on that species, but we did find the white-crowned sparrows we missed earlier. We first found a couple of immatures mixed in with some golden-crowned sparrows, and I learned that you can tell them apart by the brightness of their beaks, with the white-crowned having bright yellow beaks compared to the golden-crowned. Just in case we had any doubts, we found two adult white-crowned sparrows too. Also on this last short walk of the day we found a Bewick's wren, more glacous-winged gulls than we had seen in the morning, and saw a flock of 15 dunlin that flew overhead.

It was time to head back to reconvene with our fellow birder and come up with our tallies for the day. Here's what our team accomplished:

Hours birded: 8.5
Number of species seen: 67 (compared to 61 last year)
Number of individual birds seen: 11,935 (compared to 4848 last year)
Most number of any one species: 6260 northern pintail
Other impressive species counts: 1930 cackling geese, 960 tundra swans
Miles traveled by car: 47.5
Miles hiked on foot: 4

As a group, we tallied 112 species in our count circle, down slightly from the 117 confirmed for last year's final count, but still above the average.

We beat our personal species count from last year by six species and I added three year birds, which made for a fantastic day's birding, but I was exhausted by the time it was dark outside. I enjoyed a long hot shower and dinner, then went to bed early and had one of the best night's sleep I've had in a long time!


Warren Baker said...

Ah, a classic birding day :-). A great read and some nice stats at the end, just what I like :-)

Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

A grand day out - well done and what a lot of pintails...