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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Upper Bucks Christmas Bird Count

This weekend was the Upper Bucks County Christmas Bird Count. Once again I covered my area, a five mile stretch of highway between Quakertown and Coopersburg and side roads a mile on either side (see map here). Last year I got 36 species in this area of strip malls, suburbs, and farm fields with no public land to speak of.

This year the count morning started with a quarter inch of ice on my car. The roads were a little slick, and it was freezing rain. The temperature was supposed to climb throughout the day, but the rain was forecast to continue. So, I headed out slowly on the slick roads.

Fortunately, there were hardly any cars on the roads, so I was able to slowly drive the major roads that had been plowed of the slush and ice. By 9am I had already found 28 species--my goal of finding more species than last year seemed possible, even in the storm.

Then I hit a wall. No new birds for over an hour. Finally, a Cooper's Hawk flew over the highway at 10:30. Fifteen minutes later a group of six Common Mergansers flew over. Then my first Red-tailed Hawk of the morning and two Eastern Bluebirds. At a 11:45 I got a Red-breasted Nuthatch at a roadside bird feeder, and an American Robin called as I drove past a woodlot. Things were slowing down. I was at 34 species for the morning, so there was still lots of hope.

Then I got an emergency call that a friend's basement was flooding so I had to leave the count and go help move furniture. As I left my count area the clouds really let it all out and I was only too happy to take a break from the heavy downpour.

Finally back on the job at 1:30, the rain had slowed but so had the birding. Driving some back roads I was able to pish up a male Eastern Towhee and then a Carolina Wren called back in the woods. I had tied my count from last year. At 3:13 a Winter Wren along a railroad cut ditch put me over the top.

The last hour or so of of sunlight is often one of the best times during a Christmas Bird Count. The morning is always good, things slow way down in the middle of the day, but those last hour or so always bring surprises.

During the last hour of the day I was able to find eight more species, including a Northern Harrier and Turkey Vulture that were flying after the rain cleared up at 3:30. At dusk, I drove back to the field where the harrier had been, to see if any owls might come out. Apparently it wasn't quite dark yet, as I didn't see any owls but did have an American Kestrel plucking its prey on the top of a power pole. A few minutes later I got my last new bird of the day when a flock of six Horned Larks flew up out of the field and headed off to the northwest.

So, after driving 71 miles and birding eight hours mostly from the car, I ended up with 45 species for the day. No real surprises, but a pretty good day for birding in an ice storm!

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