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There’s no part of the holidays I look forward to more than participating in Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, which are now conducted in more than 2000 locations in the western hemisphere, including more than 60 in Illinois. The Champaign County edition took place back on December 15, and for that I teamed up with two friends to cover the U of I South Farms and surrounding areas.
For us, and for most participants, a Christmas Bird Count is an all day affair, one that begins with listening for owls before sunrise and ends after sunset. That being the case, I’ll just stick to the highlights here, and spare you details of how the wind and rain interfered with finding birds that day.
Our most interesting bird of the morning was a barred owl that’s been roosting in the U of I Forestry Plantation on South Race Street, across from Meadowbrook Park. Unfortunately for the owl, a large mob of crows found it at about the same time we did. Many of them perched in nearby branches and tormented it with their raucous calls. Others flew in menacing circles, swooping in closer now and again for effect. The owl sat tight—miserable, but determined to wait out the onslaught. By day, crows have the advantage over barred owls and good reason to attack, because under cover of darkness barred owls kill and eat them.
[Photos by author: a barred owl (from another day) and white-crowned sparrow, taken on count.]
At lunch we headed to the center of campus, where we could grab a sandwich and check for the peregrine falcon that hangs out on the tall buildings near Fourth Street. Sure enough, we spotted him perched on a ledge near the top of Sherman Hall as we parked.
After lunch it was back to the South Farms, where development has destroyed a great deal of bird habitat over the past year. In one of the weedy fields that remains we located a flock of white-crowned sparrows around a brush pile. On their wings and bodies, white-crowns differ little from house sparrows, the European bird most North Americans think of as the generic “sparrow.” But white-crowns’ heads are marked with crisp, vibrant stripes of black and white, reminiscent of the jerseys worn by NFL referees.
The white-crowns that occupy the Midwest in winter come down from breeding territories in far northern Canada and Alaska. For some reason the habitat on the South Farms has really appealed to them, and the Champaign County Christmas Bird Count circle has sometimes tallied more than any other in the state.
Late in the day my group always makes time to check for birds on the golf course at Stone Creek in Urbana, where the combination of water and wide-open spaces produces surprises sometime. This year we found there small flocks of unexpected ducks, American wigeons and northern shovelers, which were hanging out with the usual mallards and Canada geese.
We typically end the day at the Barnhart Prairie Restoration on Old Church Road south of Urbana. It’s a good spot for northern harriers, long-winged raptors that patrol low over the fields by day searching for rodents. At night, short-eared owls, which resemble harriers in appearance and habits, take over and do the same. By watching appropriate habitat at dusk, birders can sometimes catch harriers and short-eared owls on the wing at the same time.
As it turned out, our most exciting bird of the count was perched atop a telephone pole right where we pulled off the road to park.