Strategies for Christmas Count Birding

One of the high points of the birding year is upon us; it’s Christmas Bird Count season. With this in mind, past contributor David Fix offers up some time-tested strategies that might enhance your CBC experience and add a few species to your favorite count. David and I have done dozens of counts together and spent hundreds of winter days birding in western Oregon. With one us doing owls calls and the other 'pishing' (see below) the tally of anxious Dark-eyed Juncos, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Zonotrichia (crowned sparrows) that we’ve experienced together numbers into the tens of thousands. Birding is best when the collective chip notes of these birds sound like a high school typing class (pardon the dated reference). Though this piece is written from a western perspective, these strategies will prove useful in any Christmas Bird Count circle. Dave Irons, BirdFellow Content Editor

Pish Your Lips Off


When you're trying to pish up a flock of passerines, you'll find no better ally than the Black-capped Chickadee. Chickadees are often the first birds to appear when you start pishing or imitating small owls. Once they start scolding, other species come pouring in to find out what the fuss is about. Photo by Dave Irons

Whenever you encounter a flock of songbirds such as sparrows or tree-birds (chickadees, kinglets, etc.), ‘work the flock’ thoroughly by making loud shushing noises and/or Northern Pygmy-Owl toots (a low-pitched whistle once every two seconds). Pishing may be a term unfamiliar to some of you. It is quite simple, all you are trying to do is imitate the scolding sounds made by chickadees, wrens, nuthatches and other small birds. It works best to have two people in a group making these scolding and owl sounds simultaneously. Patience and persistence with this strategy often attracts huge flocks of passerines at sites where you have initially seen and heard only a few birds. If you can get the chickadees and nuthatches started, you're in business. Their scolding calls will draw in other species. In the western U.S., this is how wintering Orange-crowned, Nashville, Black-and-White, and other warblers, as well as unusual sparrows, often come to light. They may be among the later birds detected in a large roving flock--just when you’re about to move on. Remember e nolo pluribus: “Out Of None, Many.” I doubt that the Latin is correct, but it’s often proven true for me.

Scan into the Distance

Before leaving any spot you think you’ve just birded well, forget the close birds for a good long moment. Always take time to scan fence lines, posts, poles, dead-topped trees, and outlying pastures for raptors and other birds which prefer exposed lookout perches. If you are birding in a group, especially one that includes a sharp-eyed youth, assign one person to scan or scope distant perches while the others work the hedgerows and trees in close. Careful scrutiny of the surrounding landscape is how many Merlins, other raptors, and one or two ‘extra’ Black Phoebes are located. To spot hawks, use your eyes like one.


Rough-legged Hawks, like this one photographed at Ridgefield NWR in southwest Washington on 12 December 2008, often sit on the ground far out in the middle of fields. Photo by Steve Mlodinow.

Dont' Forget to Look Up

Get into the habit of glancing at the sky every few minutes for soaring or fly-by birds such as raptors, shorebirds, and waterfowl, especially if the sky is cloudy and their dark forms are readily seen. Scan across ridgelines for hawks, Golden Eagles, and fly-past Band-tailed Pigeons. Citing the title of an old Ernest K. Gann novel of World War II, remember The Crowded Sky.

When in Rome...

Rare birds are generally found in flocks of common birds.  Birds out of range are inclined to join flocks of other species, particularly during the winter months when numbers replace dense foliage as the best protection against predators. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a big flock of White-crowned Sparrows or Dark-eyed Juncos is boring—you might do well to really shake it up and find that Clay-colored or Harris’s Sparrow. Check all of the blackbirds up on the wires or in the muck at dairies for Brown-headed Cowbirds, rare icterids, and sparrows.  Check through flocks of routine waterfowl and shorebirds for that show-stopping Monster Shocker.

Find the Food Sources

Birds are not distributed evenly across the landscape. They concentrate where there is food and a lot of biological activity. Watch for flocks at small gardens, farms, dairies, manure piles, and unmanaged creeksides. Don’t spend a lot of time in ‘birdless’ places. Hollies, mountain ash, myrtles, pyracantha and other plants with waxy berries will attract flocks of American Robins, Cedar Waxwings along with lesser numbers of Hermit and Varied Thrushes. Less likely birds, like Townsend's Solitaire or Bohemian Waxwing, often turn up in these flocks. In addition to providing a good source of seeds, composting fruits (orchards) and vegetable row crops (truck farms) create warm microsites where insects hatch even when the ambient air temperature is near or below freezing.  Such sites are likely to be teeming with sparrows, finches, and occasional warblers.


In recent years, increasing numbers of White-throated Sparrows have been detected wintering west of the Rocky Mountains. This is one of two that wintered in my yard in 2008-2009. Be sure to scout for feeding stations in your count sector, especially when covering urban or suburban parts of your count circle. Photo by Dave Irons.

House Sparrows Rock!

The tiresome sound of a loud chorus of House Sparrows should be music to your ears as a bird counter, because it often indicates that there’s a bird feeder—or several—close by.  You may not be interested in the House Sparrows, but for sure you’ll be interested in the many other species that likely are using that site.


When a Gyrfalcon shows up in the Lower 48, word travels fast and a crowd is sure to gather quickly. This group of Eugene, Oregon CBC participants took a late afternoon break to enjoy a Gyrfalcon that John Sullivan found during the 2008-2009 count. Photo by Dave Irons.

If you find a rare bird, write a description of it NOW and, if possible, get a photo.  If the bird is truly remarkable—literally a “show stopper”—don’t wait until everyone meets at the end of the day to spread the news.


I am going to my first ever CBC this Saturday at Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge south of Nampa, Idaho. Thanks for the excellent tips!


David Fix’s thoughts on effective winter birding techniques are right on. I would only add that pishing is often effective at much greater distances than the observer may be aware of. You can pish across a pasture and see a row of sparrows pop up on the far side fenceline.


Robert, I hope you will share the results of employing some of these strategies after the count on Saturday. Enjoy your first CBC. Hopefully, they will fill you with good food at the countdown (see Jan 3, 2009 post to this journal).


Great stuff. The CBC challenges we face on the northern plains (North Dakota) are great but we manage as best we can. There is still some tweaking we can do to maximize our counts though. Your inputs are very relevant especially the ‘food source’ one as our winters severely restrict nutrition.
I’d also add a few more items to your menu: We’ve been known to “chum” in likely areas by setting up temporary suet posts or seeders, thereby creating your own food source.
Scout your route in the preceding days and talk to your residents. That way you can find out if they are feeding or seeing any rarities.
Schedule the count for Sunday if possible in order to take advantage of the quietest day, at least in Fargo. Saturdays (our preferred day it seems) are much to trafficky with auto and city noise predominating.
Just my thoughts.


BirdFellow: We used your tips today during the Deer Flat NWR CBC and the results were great! You can read my report at


I went out and followed your advice Mr Fix, and I want to thank you for my current inability to speak. Since my hand-writing is illegible, I am forced to communicate via computer.

Yes— I pished my lips off.

Before that though, I was yelled at by some sleeping home-owners when I blared Aerosmith out of my car window. I wanted to see if the House Sparrows really rocked. They flew, no rocking observed… except by the angry guy who tossed some large stones my way. Then I rolled on.

Not a great day, but I have high hopes that the plastic surgeon will succeed at reattaching my lips.

Until then, I will console myself with my Monster Shocker; I’m taking it to the Rocky Horror Picture Show tonight…..


7:45am 10:15am, morning flgiht from Reed’s Beach:4 Red-bellied Woodpeckers (all apparent migrants)1 Yellow-bellied Sapsucker~20 N. Flickers1 Red-breasted Nuthatch~20 Eastern Bluebirds2,130 Am. Robins~20 Am. Pipits (southbound)~40 Cedar Waxwings873 Yellow-rumped Warblers3 Chipping Sparrows2 Dark-eyed Juncos3 Bobolinks175 Red-winged Blackbirds (always hard to tell here if these are migrating or just heading out for the day but most were in tight bunches moving north along the treeline this morning)~35 E. Meadowlarks1 Rusty Blackbird1 Purple Finch30 House Finches90 Am. GoldfinchesAlso 10 Common Loons, 7 Harriers, 35 Sharpies, 525 D-c Cormorants and a Snipe.

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