Christmas Bird Count finds 52,338, but there’s a catch
It was a record-breaking year around Baldwin City in terms of feathers, but there's an asterisk to go with it.
Roger Boyd, president of the Baldwin Bird Club, reports that the 65th annual Christmas Bird Count -- the longest running version in the state -- found 52,338 birds in a 15-mile radius of the Baldwin Junction on Dec. 17. That easily surpasses the old record of 30,021 in 1999 and more than doubles the 10-year average of 23,192.
But, there were just 83 species of birds spotted, which is above the 10-year average of 78 species, but below the record of 89 species in that previous record year of 1999. And, there's a reason for the unusually high total count, said Boyd.
"The 83 species is an average year for Baldwin," said Boyd, a long-time biology professor at Baker University. "The high number of individual birds was due to several huge flocks. We had 24,585 red-wing blackbirds and 13,587 starlings. If you subtract those from the total you are left with 14,166 individuals -- a pretty average number for us."
The red-wing blackbirds and starlings totaled 73 percent of the count. That's why Boyd terms this year's count as average instead of record-breaking.
"This seemed to be a fairly average year," he said. "There were no new species seen on the count. There were a few record highs and one unusual species for the count. But, in spite of the unusually dry year, numbers seemed to be about average. The late rain in September may have increased weed seed production somewhat."
The "unusual" species was a red-shouldered hawk. There were 109 red-tailed hawks spotted, up from the 10-year average of 87. That's how the count went.
"Other high numbers included Canada Geese with 2,966, American Robin with 2,595 and Mallards with 1,600," said Boyd.
The robin numbers also point out a myth.
"The large number of robins is not unusual," he said. "In fact, the 10-year average has been 1,933. Why people associate the 'first robin with spring' is when they start breaking out of the winter flocks in March and April they begin to sing and set up territories in peoples' yards -- that's a sure sign that spring is not far away."
There were other record highs.
"Besides the record high for blackbirds, there were several other record high counts this year with Northern Shovelor at 56, Ruddy Duck at 9, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker at 11, Eastern Bluebirds at 375, Hermit Thrush at 7 and Yellow-rumped Warbler at 63," said Boyd. "The numbers of bluebirds has been high the past 10 years, but what might have increased this year's numbers on the count is the increased number of cedar and poison ivy berries in the area when compared to the past few years."
Likewise on this average year, there were some standards missing from the count.
"Some of the common species normally seen, but missed this year were Northern Bobwhite, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Western Meadowlark," he said.
The Christmas Bird Count is sponsored by the National Audubon Society and was started in 1900 as an alternative to the traditional Christmas Day Hunt when people would go out to see how many different birds an individual could shoot in a day, said Boyd.
"The modern Christmas Bird Count has developed into a very useful tool for gathering bird population data during winter conditions in the United States," said Boyd. "Each count is limited to a circle that is 15 mile miles in diameter or approximately 176.6 square miles."
There were 14 observers in the Baldwin count in seven parties and two other watching bird feeders from 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Those participating this year were Boyd, Jan Boyd, Bill Busby, Cal Cink, Sandy Johnson, Barbara and Martin Pressgrove and Floyd Schmidt of Baldwin City; Gerry Parkinson, Phil and Roy Wedge of Lawrence; Grace Brewer and John Brockway of Ottawa; Larry Williams of Kansas City; John and Lind Zempel of Topeka; and James Brockway of Ames, Iowa. Boyd said there's always room for more counters.
"We invite you to join us next year," he said.