NORMAN — Early Sunday morning all across Norman and environs, sleepy birders were crawling out of the warm covers, grabbing a quick breakfast and heading out into the cold. It was the appointed day for this year’s annual Christmas Bird Count.
The team of Anais Starr, John Raeside, Brian Davis and Angie Holt and Dick Gunn met by the Green Gate on South Jenkins and headed down the South Canadian River looking for Bald Eagles. They were hard to come by this year-- as were many regular reliable winter birds—but the group was soon rewarded by a quick fly-by of the eagle. It was the only one seen by counters this year.
They then drove a nearby pastures looking for ducks on ponds and sparrows in the brush. It became obvious that the bird population dynamics were different this year. A lot of the birders had suspected that last summer’s drought, hellish high temperatures and a warm winter would impact the number and distribution of species and total numbers of birds to be found. But you can have suspicions about these ups and downs, but if the Christmas count does anything, it does confirm trends and fluctuations based against past year’s surveys.
Next, they walked the outlet creek that parallels Jenkins and again we were forced to scramble to find “the usual suspects.” The team managed to get several good birds. Tey found Greater White-fronted Geese, Brown Creepers, a Hermit Thrush, an American Pipit and a Golden-crowned Kinglet and in a stroke of extreme good luck Raeside and Starr found a Townsend’s Solitaire—a western bird seldom seen in Central Oklahoma near Cherry Creek along the river.
The group of bird counters had not been out there alone. There were 11 other bird count teams and a number of feeder watchers working across a circular territory that covers Norman all the way out to Thunderbird and Draper Lakes. After a long day, most of the participants came in from the cold and repaired to Jennifer’s Kidney’s small warm house redolent with the smells of one of her traditional, lush Christmas Count suppers to tally our results.
At the post-count party Sunday night, Mark Howery, the count coordinator, President-for-Life of the Cleveland County Audubon Society and expert on the population trends for our part of the state, pointed out that there were some interesting sightings and some unexpected trends taking place.
Really interesting birds included the Townsend’s Solitaire, four Black Vultures, a Turkey Vulture, three Sprague’s Pipits, an American Pipit, and the Greater White-fronted Geese.
Notable for their absence on this year’s count were Horned Grebes, Common Mergansers, Wild Turkeys, Northern Bob-whites, Eastern Screech Owls, Winter and Marsh Wrens, Orange-crowned Warblers and Pine Siskins. A couple of these were seen before or after the actual count day and will included in the count also.
Many hawks, woodpeckers, song birds and wintering sparrows were in low numbers. The counters came up low on Northern Flickers, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches and Field Sparrows. They reported high numbers of Red-headed Woodpeckers and Nathan Kuhnert came up with lots of Chestnut-collared Longspurs along NW 24th. Also, a lot of Greater Yellow-legs were seen on various bodies of water.
Ducks were about the average for past years but mostly on the lakes. Shorebirds were up too possibly due to the mudflats around shrinking bodies of water and American White Pelicans were high too. Again this may be due to the mild winter so far.
Finally long after dark, the group broke up and poured out of Kidney’s house in the cold night air, anxious to get some rest after an exhausting day. Even though they were all tired and grumpy, we were already making plans top our numbers next year.