There’s an old saying that all anglers and hunters know well: “You shoulda been here yesterday.” The Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count was Saturday, and, at least for the Nevada area, that old saying may apply.
The Ames count circle that our Nevada area is part of came up with 78 species on count day. A few more were seen earlier in the count week. Though that’s not a record, it’s a pretty good total, and included several species that aren’t seen very often. Our Nevada count area could find only 28 species, and we had to work harder than usual to find those.
We had hoped to find several unusual species that had been seen in our area over the past couple of weeks, including red crossbills, redpolls, and a snowy owl that was seen only a quarter mile from my house the evening before the official count. But, alas, we couldn’t find them on count day.
It’s hard to complain too bitterly about our day of birding. The weather was calm and warm — flat out gorgeous for mid-December. That actually contributed to our difficulty in finding birds. They were taking it easy and enjoying it, too. They weren’t concentrated in cover near birdfeeders as they usually are during harsher weather. In fact, there were no birds at all — not even one — when we stopped by to check the feeders in my backyard.
I had gone out before sunrise to fill all of the feeders so “my birds” would have a real banquet set out and, hopefully, be there in good numbers. Maybe the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk had just paid a visit and scared them all away just before we arrived. Activity was slow at all of the several birdfeeder sites we visited, though. Several once-popular feeder sites where we used to pick up multiple sightings were sitting empty. We’ve noted fewer people each year that are actively feeding birds in our area.
I was counting with a young partner who still has good hearing in addition to good eyes. He could hear things I couldn’t even with my hearing aids on. He heard what was likely a red-breasted nuthatch at the Nevada cemetery, but the little guy stayed hidden up in the tall pines and spruces no matter how hard we looked. It was probably one of a pair of the little birds that had visited a friend’s feeder nearby only a couple of days earlier.
That same friend called me as we were visiting a site where we usually flush an owl or two. He described a bird he had just seen and heard that could only have been a Carolina wren. He was only a couple of blocks away at the time, too. My young friend and I began walking that way. We flushed the barred owl we were hoping to see, but by the time we got to where the wren had been, it was nowhere to be seen or heard.
Carolina wrens have expanded their range northward in recent years and a few are now year-round residents in our area. Their call is loud and unmistakable. We visited that site a couple of more times later in the day hoping to see or hear it, but we never did. Luckily, another Carolina wren appeared ever so briefly at a rural feeder site we were visiting. It was one of our last sightings of the day.
The warm conditions meant more open water than usual. We’re all used to seeing winter geese, now, but a few more species of ducks were still hanging around than some years. The 2017 count found rare Arctic visitors such as common redpolls (a tiny finch that seldom gets this far south), rough-legged hawks and a snowy owl (count week). Several species that aren’t usually seen this far north this late in the year were also tallied. They included a yellow-rumped warbler (one of the hardier warblers, but still later than usual), a killdeer, a hermit thrush and a common grackle.
We eventually found a few finches, woodpeckers and other birds in our Nevada count area on count day even though none were visiting my feeders when we looked. Chickadees, woodpeckers and more than 20 finches were at my feeders this morning. They shoulda been here yesterday.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.