December 04, 2007

Four calling birds

173 sharp-shinned hawk
174 red-breasted nuthatch
175 rough-legged hawk

DEC. 15, MADISON, WISC., snowy, 20—It’s not a good sign when the highlight of your birding day is a bathroom break. Not to say my experience at the 108th annual Christmas Bird Count was miserable, though it did involve more cold tolerance than I normally like to have to demonstrate for birding.

The CBC is a nationwide survey of bird populations, where counters add up not only different species but all individual birds. T
his is my fourth. Last year we had a cracking good time in Missouri on a 68-degree day. Now that I’ve moved four degrees of latitude north to Madison, Wisc.—which explains the huge gap in Very Little Big Year—a winter day in the 60s is pure fantasy. The reality on CBC day was 16 at sunrise, reaching low 20s in the afternoon. Also in the forecast: the sixth snowstorm of the month, if I counted correctly.

So it was no surprise when it began snowing soon after my partner, Peter, picked me up. We stopped first at Vilas Park at the Lake Wingra shore, a known spot for screech owls. Our territory was a combination of parks, lakeshore, neighborhoods, and a corner of the university arboretum. We quickly realized we’d have to depend on mixed winter flocks for most of our count. At mid-morning an alley turned up finches, chickadees, goldfinches, cardinals, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers—the usual winter suspects.

By late morning I felt chilled. I can also report that a combination of gray sky and falling snow makes terrible light for birding.
My binoculars fogged regularly, rendering the obscure objects in my field of view even more invisible--assuming I could focus in time with gloves. Luckily Peter was a good birder who managed to pick up everything. We needed a timeout.

Vilas zoo offered public restrooms, warmth, and the largest collection of tropical birds in Madison. Basking in the unreality, we stepped inside a steamy rainforest aviary to watch tanagers (including the multicolored paradise tanager), white-faced whistling ducks, and gregarious blue-and-gold macaws.

Back outside, Lake Wingra was mostly frozen (two tiny areas of open water held mallards). The brushy lakeshore had little beyond cardinals. Our arboretum section stood silent except for a few chickadees. The place to look for birds was at backyard feeders.

Fortunately we had decent backyard views from alleys and the southwest bicycle path. We noticed what the popular feeders have in common: tree variety in the area, especially evergreens and shrubs—good protective cover—near the feeders. Three or four feeders provided the bulk of the afternoon’s birds.

By late afternoon we hoped to reach 20 species. A red-tailed hawk high in a tree gave us that, and at the end of the day a flock of Canada geese flew over for no. 21 (final count here). We decided not to include the macaws and tanagers.

[where: 53711]


Anonymous Bird houses said...

great photo!


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