Six Great Christmas Bird Count Strategies Revisited

It is hard to believe that another Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season is upon us. With this in mind, it seems appropriate to revisit a great article provided by David Fix. In it he offers up six time-tested strategies that are sure to enhance your CBC experience. David and I have done dozens of counts together and spent hundreds of winter days birding together in western Oregon. With one of us doing owls calls and the other 'pishing' (see below) we've attracted the attention of tens of thousands of Dark-eyed Juncos, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Black-capped Chickadees, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and Zonotrichia (crowned sparrows) over 35 years of birding together. When the action is truly hot, the collective chip notes of these birds sound like a high school typing class (pardon the dated reference). Although Fix writes from a western perspective, the strategies outlined in this article should bear fruit in any North American CBC circle. Dave Irons, BirdFellow Content Editor

The article below was first published in this journal on 15 December 2009.

Pish Your Lips Off

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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