Evening Grosspigs and more!

January 4, 2013 Comments Off on Evening Grosspigs and more!

Happy New Year one and all, and welcome to Sugarloaf’s winter/spring blog series!

Once weekly we will have updates for you on winter happenings, seasonal changes, basically whatever is going on at the time of writing. It will be interesting to write a Sugarloaf blog when I will only be able to be up there a few times a month during the winter and into spring, so I guess changes should be really obvious to me! I might need a few North Shore spies to help keep me up to date with conditions near Sugarloaf! Feel free to leave spy comments on this blog!

Well, we are all fresh from the holiday season and one of the things that I look forward to during the month of December is National Audubon Christmas bird counts. This year I took part in two counts in the area. The Duluth Christmas bird count at Hartley Park on December 15th and I am fairly fresh from the Isabella Christmas bird count on December 30th. Two very different experiences to be sure. This year it rained, OK, the more accurate description would be, it poured for the Duluth count. Very much a listen for sounds, because sightings were few and far between. The highlight of my count day was a flock of about 18 Common Redpolls.

The Isabella count was far different thankfully. It was unusual in my experience of Isabella counts- it was actually a beautiful day in the upper teens and almost no wind. I have lots of memories of much colder and windier days, but was grateful that this year the conditions were fabulous for looking around for birds. Highlights for the day included a flock of White-winged Crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks, and a Red Crossbill, along with many Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches. I was not lucky enough to see of hear any Boreal Chickadees. But, it was a glorious day nevertheless, and it should be noted that the Isabella count proudly states that is has never counted any invasive species of birds in the 15 mile count circle.

A little history of Christmas bird counts might be in order here. They were started in 1900 by Frank Chapman, an officer in the fairly new organization the Audubon Society. It was proposed as an alternative to the traditional “side hunt” which pitted multiple teams of shooters that went out and spent the day shooting birds and the side with the largest count of dead birds at the end of the day won. Thankfully the new version became popular and has now grown to more than 2000  15-mile count circles in the US and Canada and provides the world’s largest and oldest database on bird populations, that is used by lots of scientists to look at population trends for birds.

A local example of a species that has changed markedly is the Evening Grosbeak. My first exposure to these birds was during my year as a naturalist at the Environmental Learning Center in Isabella in the 80’s. One of our jobs was to keep feeders filled for birds, and I distinctly remember the Evening Grosbeaks voraciously consuming everything in sight as large flocks descended on a freshly filled feeder. We nicknamed them Evening Gross Pigs because it was a common occurrence to make a round filling feeders with sunflower seeds only to look 20 minutes later and find them empty once again and need to repeat the whole process. Evening Grosbeaks have always been known to have varying population trends typically with every other year peaks. The Isabella count data shows numbers in the 80’s and 90’s ranging from fairly typical data of less than 100 to the largest count of 370 in 1996. After 2006 they have not been found in the Isabella count circle at all, until this year when a few (less than 10) were spotted by one group. National trends show this as well, the Cornell Feeder Watch program has noted a 50% decline in numbers between 1988 and 2006, and overall Christmas Birds Counts show population decreases in areas as large as 78%.

National Audubon Society published a Birds and Climate report (click here) in 2009 looking at trends in 305 species of birds that were consistently counted in the same Christmas bird count circles from 1969 through 2008- 40 years of data for these areas. In these 40 years, 177 of those 305 species show a significant shift to the north in their winter range, with more than 60 species moving more than 100 miles to the north, and with the average change a 35 mile shift to the north. Lots of interesting information about birds is to be found in this report- so look online if you are interested for more details. Times they are a changing for the birds, and I hope that we can begin to note some of these changes by looking at our bird banding data at Sugarloaf and watching for trends.

See ya next week!

These updates are made possible by a generous donation from David and Rosemary Good.