From birds to Bethlehem, Christmas bird count along Tomorrow River
By JOE PASSINEAU
Special to The Gazette
As three kings with gifts followed a magical star towards Bethlehem and countless families slipped presents under twinkling Christmas trees, a small band of birders searched for another kind of treasure in the Christmas trees along the Tomorrow River near Amherst: the colorful, musical, living ornaments flying from tree to tree and soaring over snow-covered fields.
With each sighting, the birders delighted in the bright red cardinal and blue jay, the staccato call of woodpeckers, the creeping of nuthatches and the gliding of eagle and red-tailed hawk.
Ever wonder what birds the three kings saw on their camel-back ride to Bethlehem? While that’s likely to remain a mystery, read on to discover the winter birds of the Tomorrow River.
Each year, members of the local Aldo Leopold Audubon Society join together to carefully count birdlife in the Amherst area as part of the National Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). The Bird Count this year was, indeed, on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, (not because there was no room in the inn) but because of the severe weather on the originally planned date of Dec. 17.
This marked the 37th year that the Amherst area has participated in the Christmas Bird Count and the 117th year that the National Audubon Society has sponsored this citizen-based science and conservation program.
In addition to being a great outdoor event for participants, the survey results help scientists study trends in bird populations and track related environmental influences, such as global climate change.
With Amherst and the Tomorrow River at the center of a 15-mile diameter circle, the Amherst count covers 177 square miles – reaching from Sunset Lake on the north, Scandinavia and Iola on the east, Custer on the west and Spring Creek on the south. The rolling glacial topography includes the Tomorrow and Waupaca River watersheds, many small lakes and wetlands, and a diversity of woodlands, farms and rustic roads.
This year, 22 volunteers counted a total of 2,840 individual birds, which was considerably fewer than last year, which set a record of 6,287 birds. Although there were fewer birds seen, 39 different species were observed, just one less than the record of 40 set for the Amherst Circle in 2008 and 2015. The lowest species count was just 27 tallied in 1988.
Seventeen of the volunteers completed driving routes and seven observed birdfeeders. Participants, driving the pie-shaped segments of the Amherst Circle, traveled a combined total of 292 miles and logged 28 hours of observing (this does not include the 16 hours spent by the bird feeder watchers). The number of volunteers and miles driven this year were somewhat lower than the past few years. This may have contributed somewhat to the smaller number of birds counted.
Weather likely contributed more to the significantly lower bird count of 2,840 for 2016 as the birds seemed less active and more difficult to see. During the previous week there was much snow, strong winds and unseasonably cold temperatures. The night before count day, another snowstorm also covered tree branches with a heavy coating of snow, making it very difficult to locate the birds.
The weather on count day was, however, relatively warm with temperatures in the low 30s. With little wind and deep snow cover, relatively few hawks and other raptors were seen flying above.
As most of the waterways were frozen and the fields were covered in snow, few waterfowl were observed: just two geese and two mallards. This contrasts significantly from the record setting numbers of waterfowl (1,196 Canada geese, 188 mallards and 200 herring gulls) counted in 2015 when the fields were snow free and the water mostly open.
While most other birds were seen in usual numbers, there were a few unusual sightings. Two common flickers and one fox sparrow were observed frequently at bird feeders. Interestingly, one tufted titmouse was also seen throughout December at a birdfeeder just outside the Count Circle boundary (but could not be included in the count).
As for winter migrants (which spend summers farther north), it was nice this year to see snow buntings (121), horned larks (47), pine siskins (7), cedar waxwings (46), a northern shrike (1) and a relatively high number of juncos (802), easily seen in large clusters as they searched the graded roadsides for food.
This year there were no redpolls, pine grosbecks, or Lapland longspurs. Declining species include evening grosbeaks (last seen in 1995) and red-headed woodpeckers (last seen in 2003).
Totals for the Amherst Circle Count included: Canada goose, 2; mallard, 3; wild turkey, 63; bald eagle, 11; sharp shinned hawk, 3; red tailed hawk, 13; American kestrel, 1; rock pigeon, 313; mourning dove, 234; great horned owl 2; barred owl, 2; red-bellied woodpecker, 18; downy woodpecker, 32; hairy woodpecker, 22; pileated woodpecker, 8; northern shrike, 1; blue jay, 83; American crow, 259; common raven, 5; horned lark 47; black-capped chickadee, 180; red-breasted nuthatch, 12; white-breasted nuthatch, 37; brown creeper, 2; American robin, 28; European starling, 128; cedar waxwing, 46; American tree sparrow, 76; dark-eyed junco, 802; snow buntings, 121; northern cardinal, 41; purple finch, 13; house finch, 7; pine siskin, 7; American goldfinch, 166; house sparrow, 49; fox sparrow, 1; common flicker, 2.
The 22 volunteers participated in the Amherst Count this year included, by section counted: Section 1: Joe Passineau, Lyn Passineau; Section 2: Todd Knepfel, Carol Welling, BJ Welling, Larry Kurzt; Section 3: Mark Thwaits, Bill Seybold; Section 4: Bob Juracka, Louise Juracka, Eric Anderson, Sue Anderson, Matt Anderson, John Zach, Jen Zach; Section 5: Karen Dostal, Mark Dostal. Birdfeeder observers included Alan Young, Bob Hanke, Mary Jo Pfankuck, Ron Zimmerman, Susan Kerbel, Bob and Louise Juracka.
Eric Anderson served as compiler. Karen Dostal and Joe Passineau served as coordinators for the Amherst Count. Results are submitted each year by the compiler to the National Audubon CBC office and are available for public use on the CBC website.
Anyone interested in comparing recent and past CBC results for most count areas, check the historical results link on the National Audubon Christmas Bird Count website.
If interested in participating in next year’s Amherst Area CBC, contact Karen Dostal at 715-592-4706 or Eric Anderson at 715-592-4423.
Editor’s note: Joe Passineau is a member of the Amherst Circle Christmas Bird Count.