December 23, 2006

Making a Christmas list

DEC. 16, BEAR CREEK, mostly cloudy, 65—For the 107th annual Christmas Bird Count, our team (Andy, Donna, Jim, I) covered the five-mile Bear Creek trail on Columbia's north side. Though 15 inches of snow on Dec. 1 followed by a weeklong freeze drove some birds south, on count day the temperature rose into the 60s. Many ground feeders were still missing, however.

A Christmas count is a nationwide bird census, so along with 50,000-plus other birders we tallied not only species but numbers of birds (see our count here).

Last year on the same route we had 31 species. Today we scratched out 32, with mighty sparse representations in some species: 630 total birds, less than a third of last year's 2,115. In the first couple of hours we saw practically nothing. Then we hit several hotspots with junco-dominated songbird flocks, picked up woodpeckers here and there, heard kingfishers and Carolina wrens along the creek, and flushed a great blue heron.

So eager were we to reach 30 species for the day that we also drove around a mobile-home park to find house sparrows. Since we were still in Columbia's 15-mile-diameter count circle and nobody had covered the area, this search for a ubiquitous non-native bird was legal, ethical—and desperate. Rarely have birders been so excited to see a house sparrow.

Since October it's been painfully obvious to me that I won't reach 300 species for the year. At the start of 2006 I wanted at least to make a decent showing, but 179 is not a number I'll be bragging about.

There's only one thing to do: try for a bigger Little Big Year in 2007.