Thursday, December 15, 2011

Anticipating Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Champaign County edition

Anticipating Audubon Christmas Bird Count, Champaign County edition

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Recently I took some time to do a bit of scouting in the territory my group covers for the Champaign County edition of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which will take place this Saturday, December 17. Our area includes Urbana’s Meadowbrook Park, as well as the University of Illinois Forestry Plantation on the other side of Race Street.

My first objective was to determine whether any owls have been roosting at Forestry, where there’s a small block of cedars they like. A great horned owl is a possibility there, but in winters past, long-eared owls, which come down from the north, have been found there, too.

The easiest way to locate roosting owls is to search for whitewash at the base of likely trees, so that’s what I did for starters. Finding none, I moved to strategy two--in this case, tipping my head back and scanning the densely growing upper branches of 25-foot tall trees spaced less than ten feet apart. Patient birders with sharp eyes sometimes find owls this way, but I never have, so after a short time I shifted gears.

I quietly made my way into a block of scrub, drawn by the calls of a loose flock of winter songbirds. Cardinals, robins, and juncos were there, as well as a single yellow-rumped warbler. They can be difficult to find on Christmas counts, so I was happy to locate this one.

The trunks of dying trees in the vicinity were alive with the tapping of woodpeckers, and all three of the species most common in our area were represented: downy, hairy, and red-bellied. White-breasted nuthatches probed the bark for insects, sometimes clinging sideways or upside down to access a choice crevice. Not so a tiny brown creeper, which picked its way directly from the bottom to the top of one tree, and then flitted to the base of another to begin ascending again.

A flash of color on a bird in flight provided a welcome surprise, and a yellow-bellied sapsucker landed on a nearby pine. Like yellow-rumped warblers, they can usually be found for local Christmas counts, but not always.

I moved next to edges of the prairie reconstruction at Meadowbrook Park, hoping to find an uncommon raptor, a red-shouldered hawk or a goshawk, perhaps, but that was not to be.

Little birds were there in abundance, though. Goldfinches in their drab winter feathers scattered before me, their undulating flight confirming identification even at a distance. The squeaky calls of goldfinches are unmistakable, too, but there other bird music in the air gave me pause.

American tree sparrows? Pine siskins?

First it seemed to be one, then the other. As it turned out it was both—a mixed flock feeding on the seeds of dormant prairie plants. At my approach, sentinels popped up from the ground to perch atop last summer’s growth of Indian grass and goldenrod. I took another step and the whole group was gone, leaving the scene so quiet I could hear the cold breeze sweeping in from the north.

I suppose there’s no point in hoping for warm weather on count day.

Are you interested in participating in an east-central Illinois Christmas Bird Count this year? Check out the Website of the Champaign County Audubon Society for dates and contact information: