Bird Count reveals 100th species

A Wilson’s snipe, like this one seen in Alaska, was one of the highlights identified by volunteers during the annual Christmas Bird Count two weeks ago. (Photo provided by Larry Master, www.masterimages.com)

SARANAC LAKE — Local birders faced extreme temperatures when they ventured out around the area to look for birds during the annual Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.

The count took place Saturday, Dec. 30, and was attended by 43 observers. Those people saw 42 different species of bird for a total of 4,276 individual birds. Larry Master, who has been in charge of the local count for decades, said in an email that some species were expected to be seen due to an abundance of seeds, but there were still a couple of surprises.

“An excellent mast crop of conifer seeds led to 4,276 individual birds recorded, one-third of whom were conifer seed-eating finches (red and white-winged crossbills, purple finches, pine siskins, and American goldfinches). These are expected results in a year with a good to excellent cone crop, a typically biannual event in the Adirondacks,” Master wrote. “Notable was Alan Belford’s backyard in Saranac Lake, which hosted 15 species including fox sparrow (fourth recorded in the past 43 years) and three other sparrow species plus, during count week, a house finch, the first SLCBC recording of this introduced species in 13 years.”

Although the main push to count comes on a single day, birders from around the area are allowed to report birds seen in the three days leading up to the count and the three days after.

Some birds, such as a robin, are commonly seen in the area but not at this time of year, while others are outright surprising.

A few days after the robin was spotted along the railroad tracks between Ray Brook and Saranac Lake, Master wrote that “the same wet spot held a Wilson’s snipe, the first winter record of this species in the Adirondacks ever recorded on eBird. The snipe’s appearance marks the 100th species seen on this count since 1975.”

Due to volunteers being out to look for birds, they can often see bird behavior that others may not notice.

“Other notable sightings included a Cooper’s hawk killing a pigeon in Saranac Lake,” Master said. “The pigeon was left dead on a busy street but Russ DeFonce saved the hawk’s meal (and possibly its life) by moving the pigeon to the safety of a parking lot where the hawk promptly flew in and claimed its prize.”

Master said that one of the most surprising things in this season’s bird count was the number of juncos, which are fairly common at bird feeders in the winter. Master said volunteers saw a total of 397 juncos just on count day, which is a record for the 43-year-old survey. Rusty blackbirds were also spotted this year, just the fourth time in the survey’s history.

Master also said there were some notable absences, including no sightings of barred owls or common redpolls.

“This is the first time since 1984 that redpolls — predictably biannual winter visitors — have not made a SLCBC appearance for three consecutive years,” he wrote.

Master also said the majority of birds were spotted near feeders in people’s yards, especially feeders filled with nijyer or sunflower seeds.

Whiteface bird study

Following up on a study that was conducted 40 years ago, two researchers recently found that birds — particularly those on Whiteface Mountain — appear to be moving higher up the mountain as climate change creates warmer summers and irregular winters.

“At low elevations we encountered several species that were not recorded on the transect in 1974, a trend we attribute to climate warming and anthropogenic habitat change at low altitudes,” researchers said in the summary of the study. “Our resurvey shows that there have been substantial upward range shifts in most bird species on Whiteface Mountain in the last four decades, and provides a basis for reassessment of altitudinal range dynamics at the southern edge of the North American boreal forest in the coming decades.”

In addition to the findings that birds are moving uphill, the researchers — Jeremy Kirchman, the bird curator at the State Museum, and Alison Van Keuren — also found a number of species that weren’t even present on the mountain when the original study was conducted in 1974. For instance, they found 13 species of birds at 1,425 meters (4,675 feet above sea level, about 200 feet below the summit) when the 1974 study found just seven species at that elevation.

Kirchman and Van Keuren utilized the Veteran’s Memorial Highway to conduct the study, noting birds at both dawn and dusk. The study was published in the December issue of the Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

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