Connect with people, wildlife, environment through the Christmas Bird Count
Even when the birds seem absent, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, really counts
In birding, as with hunting, fishing, or any other of life’s more enjoyable pursuits, moments make the experience.
“I saw my first towhee right here,” Christine Otto said as our annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count team descended a hill on a north Tulsa County ranch Saturday. The Eastern Towhee is a stately oversized rufous-sided sparrow with a black neck, head, and back, white belly, and white highlights on its black wings and tail that cannot help but leave a positive first impression.
They’re pretty cool.
Otto and I are the rank amateurs who have teamed up with experts Jeff Cox and Bill Carrell most years since I first joined them to write a story about the count as a newbie to the area in 2008.
Of the four of us, my participation has been the spottiest these past 14 years, what with other outdoor topic assignments to cover this time of year.
Cox has led a group to cover our assigned area since 1994. He described the semi-annual team effort well 10 years ago in a comment on a video as a fun outdoor activity and “being with a good group of people I wish I’d get together with more than once a year.”
It is a holiday tradition to jump in the car with these folks on the third Saturday in December and explore our section of the Tulsa Audubon “count circle,” which involves several such teams covering a circle of 15-mile radius centered near Owasso. It hits most of north Tulsa County, areas—urban to rural—from Mohawk Park to downtown Sperry to new neighborhoods southeast of Skiatook.
I laid eyes on a barred owl for the first time on the count. Learned about LeConte’s sparrows and savannah sparrows, and got better in general at identifying the wide variety of birds that winter in Oklahoma, even some of the gulls and shorebirds. Along our route, I know where to “duck” and am always hopeful we will spot another Cox’s Frickin Golden Eagle (spelled with an exclamation point in the best field guides).
I’ve been on the route enough now I just expect to see certain things in certain places. These are the bird-watching equivalents of the brushy draw that always holds the game, and that spot under the log just around the creek bend from that the riffle that always holds a fish.
It’s a bummer when the game isn’t there, or the fish doesn’t bit, and it’s equally disappointing when the birds don’t materialize for our group.
Saturday, I must say, was slow, really slow. Just like anglers and hunters who grasp for explanations, we were left wondering what was up. “Where the hell are they” thoughts floated around the gap between my binoculars and the back of my head on several occasions. Some common winter species we typically log just weren’t around, or we found just one or two. No bluebirds, no kingfishers, no shrikes, no Bonaparte’s gulls, no rails or snipes or marsh wrens, no red-headed woodpeckers, no wood ducks.
That’s not to say other groups within the count circle won’t log those, but it was a little sad on our end. Some years we miss common species just because we’re just not lucky, but, man, Saturday kinda sucked pondwater.
The morning started out silent, for me, with some pre-sunrise “owling,” which is basically pulling off the road to stop and listen in the dark for owl calls. Sometimes you can try some barred owl or screech owl calls to see if anything responds. I heard nothing for an hour. Carrell logged a couple on his approach to our 7 a.m. meet-up at the Judy Z. Kishner Library in Sperry, but that was it.
The morning always starts with us overlooking Sperry Lake, which was frozen this year. Save for one great blue heron and several dozen Canada geese, it was pretty darned quiet. One group of about a dozen mallards arrived to circle the lake and leave.
But the first “where the hell are they” moment really hit as the sun fully popped over the horizon.
Before full sunrise, typically, the blackbirds, starlings, and grackles start pouring off their roosts to fly north over Sperry as we watch from our slightly elevated position near a used car dealership off Highway 11.
Typically it’s just a start to the tally of blackbirds that is a pure estimate because the sheer numbers are in the thousands by day’s end.
We spotted somewhere around 150 blackbirds Saturday morning and it didn’t increase much from there through the day. Where were the flocks of blackbirds picking around the manure in the farm pastures or gang-raiding neighborhood bird feeders? Where were the rusty blackbirds and the cowbirds?
Here’s a flashback to 2012
Our group is pretty good at filling the quiet times with banter, but this off-year even put us through a few doldrums. Cox even accused me of starting to sound like a complainer at one point. I found this insulting, as I was doing my level best to be that guy who openly complains to the guide when the fish aren’t biting.
Not really, but our annual bird-count banter is nonsensical that way.
Maybe the reason for the lack of birds was the 28-degree morning, or maybe the late-summer drought changed the local habitat in a big way that is obvious to the birds but not us. Maybe they’re happy somewhere else this year.
Maybe the reason that birding on this one Saturday in December was so slow will become clear from future evidence, or maybe it will be a fluke in the line of citizen science data collected by the Tulsa Audubon Society every holiday season since 1926.
That is the beauty of the count, and why more folks should jump in and participate. You just never know what you’ll see, and whether it’s observing something new or not seeing anything where you expect something, participants walk away having contributed to an international database, but more importantly with a specific, enduring, connection to a time, place, people, and wildlife.
Christmas Bird Counts to come at cool places
Several Christmas Bird Counts events took place this first weekend of the Dec. 14-Jan. 5 effort, but other events across Oklahoma are scheduled through the first week of January. I urge everyone to check the list for an opportunity that suits you this season or to mark your calendar for the Dec. 14, 2023 weekend.
Here are Oklahoma counts yet to take place this season. Check with the listed organizers before you show up. They will want to assign you to a team and offer directions beforehand. Click here to go to the Audubon Society map and learn about counts in other states as well.
Fort Gibson Reservoir: Dec. 27. If you are new and would like to participate, please contact the compiler Nadine Varner at 405-370-5076 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We will meet for lunch at the Braums in Wagoner at 1 pm.
Tallgrass Prairie Preserve: Jan. 2, 2023. Contact Don Wolfe, email@example.com People gather at the Tallgrass Preserve Headquarters early in the morning and spend the day on the glorious prairie landscape.
Sooner Lake: Dec.26, Contact Timothy O’Connell, firstname.lastname@example.org. This count takes place in a rare environment of mostly unplowed tall-grass prairie originally preserved as very large grazing leases from the Otoe-Missouri and Ponca tribes.
Salt Plains N.W.R.: Dec. 31, Contact Glen Hensley, email@example.com or 580-626-4794. People meet at the refuge visitor center/office at 7:00 am to get route assignments. Participants meet back up at 5:30 pm to compile lists. If you are interested in participating please reach out to Glen Hensley.
Stephens County: Dec. 29, For information please contact Kurt Meisenzahl, firstname.lastname@example.org or 580-585-0199.
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We always participate from our backyard which is wooded adjacent to a creek.