Backyard Naturalist: Avid Bird Watchers Help With Audubon Annual Christmas Bird Counts in Area

Russ Mohney

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering. His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published Dec. 17, 2004.

You’d think the beginning of winter in the lowlands of the Pacific Northwest would be the worst possible time to go bird watching on purpose.

It’s generally dark and damp and drippy, although not usually very cold. It’s a time when birds ought to be huddled in a cozy little nest against the weather, and a bird watcher ought to have his feet propped up in front of an open fire and a flagon of mulled cider at the ready.

If that’s what you’d think, you’d be wrong.

It is true that most of the seasonal migrants are long gone, basking in faraway lands with all-day sun and an abundance of seeds, blossoms and insects. The familiar residents are around in huge numbers, though, and can be viewed and enjoyed without the distraction of some smart-alecky exotic from Honduras flitting about.

That’s precisely why the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Counts are scheduled to take place from about mid-December until early January. Local groups can get together and spend one whole day counting every bird that comes within their sphere of interest.

The annual CBC is the largest natural information-gathering activity on Earth, and the millions of individual birds counted by tens of thousands of volunteers across North American give us priceless insight into the relative population and distribution of resident species.

Sometimes the numbers recorded by a single team of bird counters can be staggering.

Last winter, for example, the group at Sequim-Dungeness logged 3,462 pine siskins and 1,647 golden-crowned kinglets during their one-day count.

The group at Tillamook Bay counted 66,000 common murres during their day in the field. Ducks were the highlight up in Padilla Bay, where counters notched 9,817 American widgeon during their CBC.

There isn’t a formal CBC in Lewis County as far as I know, so ardent local birders lend their energy to counts in Grays Harbor, Olympia, down on the Columbia or elsewhere. Since I’m not much of a “joiner” and prefer my birding in company with just myself or one or two others with whom I can share a thermos of coffee and a simple lunch, I tend to do my own Christmas Bird Count.

If I do remember to write my sightings down, I don’t send the numbers to anybody. I suppose I’m not very cooperative, but I have so darned much fun with my own unscheduled, impromptu bird count that everything else gets lost in the shuffle.

For the past few years, I’ve done my one-man stint on or near Riffe Lake, Swofford Pond or the beaver ponds up on Peterman Hill. I get a pretty good diversity of birds around the water and in the open underbrush, and sometimes the numbers I see astonish even me.

But I almost always manage to run into a few deer, a pair of river otters or even a small string of elk. That probably wouldn’t happen if I had a rowdy band of fellow birders jabbering away!

The other day I decided to invest the portion of a day that remained after the morning fog had lifted from Swofford Pond. I sometimes employ a bobber-and-worm to give me something to watch between birds, but this time I walked around on the new trail and down along the outlet stream. Both spots had lots of little birds like chickadees, wrens, nuthatches and sparrows to occupy my interest.

The pond had attracted a pretty good mix of water birds, which, in turn, had piqued the interest of a pair of bald eagles and at least one falcon, probably a peregrine.

During the last hour of daylight, the sun saw fit to make a brief appearance, giving the whole scene a bit of warmth.

Finally, about a dozen elk threaded their way across the corner of the adjacent open field as they headed for a hardwood copse to presumably spend the night.

When the little herd had evaporated into the darkening brush, I packed up my coffee cup and field glasses and headed home. That particular, personal CBC had nothing either remarkable or unexpected about it. On the other hand, it was about as fun and fascinating a winter day as a person has any right to expect.

Shoot, I might just get in one more Christmas Bird Count before the season’s over!

Russ Mohney, a fourth-generation Lewis County outdoorsman, expanded the best of his decade’s worth of “Backyard Naturalist” columns into a book. Copies of “A Simple Song: Recollections from a Backwoods County” are available for $12.99 at Book ‘n’ Brush, the Lewis County Historical Museum and at The Chronicle.