The Columbus CBC

On Dec 19, teams of birders will be running around Columbus looking for all sorts of wintering birds. Sounds like a crazy way to spend a winter day, you say? We had over 50 participants helping out last year, and we were one of over 50 counts in Ohio alone; there were several thousand Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) spread out across the U.S. and into Mexico and central America. The CBCs are actually a long-running Audubon tradition, established over 100 years ago, and have become one of the longest-running volunteer bio-monitoring projects. The rules are simple: count all the birds you can in a 15-mile-diameter circle on one day between Dec 14 – Jan 5. Columbus chose Dec 19 this year, while neighboring Hoover Count is just before us, on Dec 18.  (You can see a list of all central Ohio counts on the CA Web site.)

Seems simple, but the devil is in the details. Since few counts can hope to completely cover their circles, most counts focus their efforts on the best bird-finding locations in their count circles. Here in Columbus, our circle is centered just north of Bexley, so it stretches from Northland south to Groveport, and Blacklick west to Upper Arlington. We have about 12 separate birding teams focused on the best parks and neighborhoods in this area: Blendon Woods, Blacklick Woods, Scioto MetroPark, OSU, Whetstone-Clintonville, Grandview Heights, Greenlawn, 3-Creeks, and more. Even with all these parks, much of the count area is decidedly urban and suburban, although it was much less so when the count started back in the 1960s. Our CBC has literally documented the winter bird population changes as Columbus has grown from a small city into a major metropolitan area.

What can we hope to find on a cold December day? You’d be pleasantly surprised at the number and variety of birds that call Columbus a winter home. Over the past eight years, we’ve averaged 74 species and over 20,000 individuals. The numbers that each team sees varies with the habitats and the amount of time they spend outside, but a list of 40-45 species for each team is quite typical. Of course, many of the birds we find are the ubiquitous urban birds one might expect: Ring-billed Gulls, Starlings, Crows, Cardinals, House Sparrows. But there are also a variety of other, wilder species that always are lurking in our city. Mourning Doves, Red-bellied and Downy woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, American Robins, Carolina wrens, White-throated Sparrows, and American Goldfinches are among the many ‘wild’ species that are adapting to human yards and parks in Columbus, and all of our teams usually see good numbers of these species. Other formerly-uncommon winter visitors, like Flickers, Cedar Waxwings, Eastern Bluebirds, Mockingbirds, and Juncos, have become more common in recent years, perhaps attracted by the many fruit trees in our yards and feeders around our houses.

We even get many birds that you wouldn’t expect in winter in the middle of an urban area in Ohio. Large numbers of Great Blue Herons now winter along our creeks and rivers, and waterfowl have also started to linger in these areas and open ponds. We have found 10-14 species of waterfowl, including lots of dabbling ducks and cormorants and Pied-billed Grebes. We also have a burgeoning population of winter raptors, led by Cooper’s hawks and Red-tailed hawks, which can be found in almost every area of the city. Bald eagles, almost unknown from the area 6 years ago, are now expected on every Count. Even secretive owls, like Great Horned and Barred, are still found in many of our wooded parks. We have even been getting increasing numbers of ‘half-hardy’ birds, species like sapsuckers, hermit thrushes, chipping sparrows, and even a few warblers, that are hanging on at the northern limits of their winter ranges.

Not all local winter birds are doing so well, however. Open country birds, like meadowlarks, blackbirds, harriers, and some kinds of sparrows, have definitely declined as most of the open fields of past years have been turned into subdivisions. Marsh birds like rails, Coots, snipes, and Swamp Sparrows have also become very infrequent as their wetlands have been filled in. Other birds have slowly disappeared for no obvious reasons. Red-headed Woodpeckers were formerly regular in the circle, but are now rare, possibly reflecting the steady fragmentation of our remaining upland oak forests. Eastern Towhees have declined to the point where they now hang on only in a few park areas. Hopefully these trends can be stabilized or reversed, and continued counts are the most direct way to monitor this change.

So the bottom line is that we need observers. The more teams we can fill and field Dec 19th, the better our chances of getting a good, representative count of Columbus’ winter birds. And the better our chances of unearthing something totally unexpected, like an Orange-crowned Warbler (’02), Rufous Hummingbird (’03), Grasshopper Sparrow (’05), or Western Tanager (’06). So please consider coming out for the day, or at least the morning. Even just walking around your neighborhood and watching your feeders can be valuable. Join the crazy tradition of the Audubon Christmas Bird Counts.
2009 Christmas Bird Count Data
Count Date: December 20; 6:30 a.m. To 5:30 p.m.
Temp. 24 to 34. Wind West-SW 0-3 mph. Still water mostly frozen, moving water open. A.M. Partly cloudy; P.M. Partly cloudy.
Observers: 60 in the field in 13-14 parties, 4 at feeders. Total party hours: 120 (104 on foot, 16 in cars). Total party miles: 218 (86 on foot, 132 in cars) Owling: 3.0 hours.

Species count: Mute Swan – 6 (high); CanadaGoose – 3270; Wood Duck – 4; Black Duck – 450; Mallard – 1941; American Wigeon – 5; Gadwall – 9; N.Shoveler – 1; Ring-necked Duck – 93; Redhead – 1; Bufflehead – 1; Common Goldeneye – 1; Hooded Merganser – 125; Red-br. Merganser – 1; Ruddy Duck – 1; Sharp-shinned Hawk – 3; Cooper’s Hawk – 15; N.Harrier – 1; Bald Eagle – 4 (4a); Red-shouldered Hawk – 2; Red-tailed Hawk – 37; Merlin – 2; American Kestrel – 2; American Coot – 1; Wild Turkey – 33; Pied-billed Grebe – 13; Horned Grebe – 2; Double-cr.Cormorant – 1; Great Blue Heron – 51; Black-cr.Night Heron – 12; Bonaparte’s Gull – 2; Ring-billed Gull – 2150; Herring Gull – 26; Rock Pigeon –
1186; Mourning Dove – 382; Great Horned Owl – 6; Barred Owl – 3; Belted Kingfisher – 30; Red-headed Woodpecker – 12; Red-bellied Woodpecker – 164 (high); Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – 8; Downy Woodpecker – 199; Hairy Woodpecker – 23; N.Flicker – 61 (high); Pileated Woodpecker – 7; Blue Jay – 323; American Crow – 926; Carolina Chickadee – 548; Tufted Titmouse – 139; Whitebreasted Nuthatch – 173; Red-breasted Nuthatch – 8; Brown Creeper – 36; Carolina Wren – 69; Winter Wren – 1; Golden-crowned Kinglet – 14; Horned Lark – 26; Eastern Bluebird – 40; American Robin – 2375; N.Mockingbird – 30; European Starling – 25,730; American Pipit – 8; Yellow-rumped Warbler – 15; Eastern Towhee – 4; American Tree Sparrow – 60; Field Sparrow – 1; Song Sparrow – 109; E.Fox Sparrow – 3 (different teams); Swamp Sparrow – 3; White-throated Sparrow – 486; White-crowned Sparrow – 11; Dark-eyed Junco – 277; Red-winged Blackbird – 3; Common Grackle – 13; Brown-headed Cowbird – 43; icterid sp. – 90; N.Cardinal – 756; Purple Finch – 1; House Finch – 380; American Goldfinch – 493; House Sparrow – 1786.
Totals: 80 species, 45,343 individuals. Species seen count week but not count day: Peregrine Falcon, Pine Warbler