December Bird Counts

December has always been a favorite month for birding. December means Christmas Bird Counts. Brian and I participate in CBC’s for Oklahoma City Audubon, Washita National Wildlife Refuge and Cleveland County. With a full time job, it is sometimes a challenge to find the time, but anything in December that gives me an excuse to watch birds instead of shop has to be great.

We began the first of our trio of count adventures with a beautiful Saturday in the far NW quadrant of the OKC count circle. It began slightly chilly, but a sunny day light winds became our companion for the day and being outside was quite pleasant. Birds were to be found, but very scattered and in smaller numbers. Maybe the weather was too good?

An area where a friend lives that previously had lots of brambles, fallen timber and a small creek, had been “improved” with a new sewer line at the back of the acreage, so our only suitable habitat to find Brown Creepers, Kinglets and maybe a Winter Wren was gone, and consequently we found none of the above. We also had a hard time finding Crows and Cormorants.

Winter sparrows were almost non-existent, although we finally found a White-crown or two and a Fox Sparrow. We had a good variety of ducks. Nearly every neighborhood pond in newly developing areas had ducks on it. We found Greater and Lesser Scaup, American Wigeons, Ring-necked Ducks, Green-winged Teal, a few Mallards, lots of Gadwall, a few Buffleheads, Canvasbacks and Redheads.

A flock of Horned Larks is always a treat and we found those in a yet-to-be scraped off weedy field of a future housing addition. I grumble a lot about the monumental loss of habit in our area due to development, but until these additions are completed, there is access into the neighborhoods and the few birds that find anything to eat are easily found.

Birds of prey were extremely scarce, but the weeds were either gone or had no seeds, so the critters that require weeds and seeds and provide food for the hawks were not there, and few were left. An interesting surprise was a flock of 75-80 Mourning Doves lined up on a utility line Some years we really have to search to find one or two.

On December 29th, we were on the Washita NWR and our area was south of refuge headquarters along the Washita River which drains into Foss Reservoir. Territory included the north and east sides of the refuge, mostly on refuge land which was closed to the public. This is our favorite count – no traffic; no other people; peace and quiet reign!

We enjoyed another clear, unseasonably warm day with no wind for a change. We wouldn’t dare complain! Sunrise appeared over the trees with hundreds of geese skimming the trees and heading off of the lake to feed in the fields. Ahhhhh.

When we arrived at Owl Cove on the eastern side of the lake, we found a few unusual species. The lake was extremely low, leaving a large expanse of mudflats. This was good for the Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers and a small flock or larger shorebirds that were ‘Mudjabbing.” But…with the water so far away from cover for us, we couldn’t get close enough to positively identify the larger shorebirds we spotted! Our camera lens was not quite strong enough and our scope just couldn’t quite get there! Frustrating!

The Yellowlegs were easy as they were calling. The Least Sandpipers were easy, but of course those larger shorebirds were the farthest from us and we just couldn’t be positive. Guesses include Dunlin or Semi-palmated Sandpipers. From this area we heard Wild Turkey, but never could see them. Again the smaller birds were difficult to find.

Mountain Bluebirds were found in several places and Brian was able to get several nice photos. They were quite tame. We also had several mixed flocks of Eastern and Mountain Bluebirds. These beautiful visitors from the north really do wear the sky on their backs.

Our big surprise came in the form of an unlikely bird in an even more unlikely place. There is a small settlement of homes on the north side of Foss Reservoir and as we drove the streets in this area, I spotted a wren bobbing up and down on the rail of a deck that was built on the front of a home. We were very close and even without binoculars; I knew we had a Rock Wren! Brian raised his camera and about 2 seconds before he could shoot, it flitted away to the other side of the home and wouldn’t come close enough for a photo. We even made a second trip later in the afternoon, and heard it calling, but never saw it again. Oh, well. Had to “write it up.”

We began 2012 with Esther Key and her granddaughter, Mehgan, at Lake Thunderbird, where we count birds on the north side of Alameda and the Hog Creek Arm of the lake. Another beautiful day was ours for the taking and we had fun. Birds were still very difficult to find, although we had more roadside birds here than we did anywhere else, but our area is more wooded. We failed to find any Bald Eagles for the first time in several years, but we found a Roadrunner.

We also found a pair of Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Brian found our first Brown Creeper and got photos. We had several Fox Sparrows and a few White-throated Sparrows and many Juncos. We also failed to find any Cedar Waxwings. Lake Thunderbird is also very low, leaving exposed shoreline and more mudflats. We hiked into our favorite Snipe habitat and found only two. In the muddy area north of Twin Bridges we found American White Pelicans and a flock of Greater Yellowlegs that came in together just as the sun was setting. We had found a few here and there, but never more than one at a time. The larger flock was interesting. They flew in fast with much chattering and began to feed. There were also several Great Blue Herons. We found very few ducks in our area.

Although we didn’t find as many birds as we have found in past CBCs, it was a great day to be out and we even found an enjoyable activity for Mehgan. There are two areas where Rose Rocks can be found when the lake is down and Mehgan had a great time looking for them. She had inquired as to why some of the sandstone in the area did not produce the Rose Rock formations. I told her to look it up online and let me know, because I had no clue, either. A good assignment for an eleven year-old budding scientist.