In the weeks leading up to Christmas Bird Count season we experienced what appears to be the 'new normal'. After some average late fall weather in October and early November our area was hit with an impressive cold snap in the middle of that month – at this time of year lows in the single digits are not quite something we are accustomed to (yet), not even in our hardy neck of the woods. Then milder fall-like weather returned and all ice on ponds and lakes thawed out to reveal an abundance of open water.

 

Obviously, such a meteorological see-saw must have an impact on our bird life, and I for one was curious to see just what that might end up being by the time our count day rolled around. Would all of the semi-hardy birds have been pushed further south, would any northern invasive species have made it down to Ann Arbor by the time we had our count, would we continue to have any open water?

As count day approached it became clear that the mild weather was here to stay; temperatures would be hovering around freezing and no significant precipitation was in the forecast. For our observers this would mean almost pleasant counting circumstances, a welcome change from the frosty and snowbound 2013 count. When it became clear that winds were going to be light as well (good for owling), we looked all set for a promising CBC.

The pre-dawn coverage by our owling crews amounted to a little more than 25 hours in the field, which resulted not only in good numbers of Eastern Screech-Owls and Great Horned Owls (both of them present in numbers well above the recent 10-year average), but also, finally, in the location of a pair of Barred Owls – the first of the species since 1987! I can only imagine that as the woods in our count circle continue to mature, this species will be found more regularly, much like was the case with Pileated Woodpecker which was first found in 2008.

Most of the other volunteers (68 field observers and 3 feeder watchers, in all) were unaware of this auspicious start to our count, but as is the case just about every year, pretty much every observer group in our circle encountered some notable species. At the end of the day, we tallied a total of 73 species (marginally above the recent 10-year average of 72.1 species), as well as 1 hybrid, 3 sp.'s, and 3 distinct domesticated varieties. No additional species were found during count week. Last year, the exact location of the Ann Arbor crow roost was a mystery, which caused not only a relatively low crow count but a correspondingly low overall count as well. Luckily, this year was a different story and we ended up with a grand total of just over 36,000 birds, roughly 3,000 over the 10-year average.

The mild spell during December turned out to be a rather mixed blessing – essentially all bodies of water were open, meaning that waterfowl and other water-dependent birds had many options for feeding and roosting (both inside and outside the count circle). This meant they were not concentrated in a handful of unfrozen spots on the Huron River or otherwise icy lakes, as is more often the case during our CBC. As a result, we found a significant array of water bird species, but with unexpectedly low numbers for some. In the dabbling duck category, the most notable finds were three Northern Pintails and lone Northern Shovelers and Green-winged Teals; oddly, we missed expected birds like Wood Duck, Gadwall, and American Wigeon, although a dozen and a half American Black Ducks were a decent tally for recent years. We located a half dozen species of diving ducks, with a Lesser Scaup the main highlight. As a good illustration of the mixed bag phenomenon I mentioned, the two 'goldeneye' species were found in below average numbers, whereas the two merganser species were present in significantly above average numbers. One Pied-billed Grebe (average) and only two American Coots (well below the 10-year average) rounded out the waterfowl category. Similarly, an average eight Great Blue Herons were found in scattered locations, but only 3 Belted Kingfishers turned up, which is only 50% of the average!

In the raptor category, all the usuals were found, with Cooper's Hawk tying the all-time high of 23 for the second year in a row. Other notable finds were five Turkey Vultures, an immature Bald Eagle, and a Peregrine Falcon at the UM hospital. This species has been found annually since 2005, which for now is also still true of its open country congener, the American Kestrel. Only two were found on count day, in spite of the complete lack of snow cover.

In line with the continuing struggles of field birds in our circle, a measly two Ring-necked Pheasants were found, although that was still an improvement over last year's loner. On the flip side, the Wild Turkey continued its upward trend, with triple-digit numbers tallied for the second year in a row; five areas reported this conservation success story in 2014.

Woodpeckers continue to put on a strong showing – both Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers were present in numbers some 30% above the 10-year average. As a result, the overall tally of 464 woodpeckers was also about 1/3 over that average. Furthermore, for the fourth year in a row, Pileated Woodpeckers were located, so it appears that this recent addition to our count's list (the first record was in 2008!) may have become a regular fixture for the Ann Arbor CBC – continuing woodlot maturation will continue to aid this species in its spread out of its western Washtenaw stronghold.

Lack of snow cover and mild temperatures could be expected to be beneficial to passerines as well, but, as was the case with waterfowl, it turned out to be a mixed blessing. Many observers commented on the scatter-shot nature of the day's birding: small pockets of lots of activity, followed by large areas devoid of birds. Some resident species such as Black-capped Chickadee and White-breasted Nuthatch were found in record numbers, but frugivores such as American Robin, Hermit Thrush, and Cedar Waxwing were, for all intents and purposes, all but absent. The two thrushes were found in numbers more than 60% below the recent average and Cedar Waxwings posted their lowest numbers since 1958, no doubt due to the limited fruit crop in the area.

Away from the traditional spots in the Observatory area, the crow roost was located on the south side of town, along Eisenhower Blvd, specifically near the South Industrial intersection. With the 'regular' crow counter (Mike Kielb) out of town for the holidays, Dea Armstrong and I cooperated closely to tally the roost. Starting around 4:00 p.m., Dea observed the crows flying in from the west over Briarwood Mall and was able to direct me to the roosting site off Eisenhower. Counting the crows that were already at the roost turned out to be nearly impossible and only an estimate of the constantly moving birds was an option. However, Dea had a good handle on the birds coming in from the west and I was able to get on the stream coming up from the south. After darkness set in we conferred and agreed that between us we had (conservatively) counted a total of some 17,000 crows, almost half of the total birds found on our CBC!

More or less expected, we turned up a good variety of sparrows, with 8 species tallied by count day's end. Impressively, three of the four unusual species among them (Eastern Towhee, White-crowned Sparrow, and Lapland Longspur) were all found by a single observer, Chris McCreedy in area G – kudos to Chris! In spite of, or, more likely, because of the lack of snow cover, individual numbers of all four of our 'bread and butter' sparrows (American Tree, Song, White-throated, and Junco) were down considerably as compared to the 10-year average. More than likely, most of these birds were still to the north or more widely scattered in surrounding areas. The latter scenario probably also applies to Horned Lark, which was missed for the first time since 1996!

Because they are found uncommonly on our count, reports of any blackbird species are notable. A Rusty Blackbird observed by Maggie Jewett was the first for our count since 1988 and one of very few winter records for Washtenaw County generally speaking. After last year's cowbird bonanza (180 of them), Chris McCreedy turned up an even larger flock in the same location this year – after going over his photos, he estimates that there were at least 300 birds present!

In contrast to the depressed sparrow numbers, finches were present in good variety and numbers. Twelve Common Redpolls and two Purple Finches were the clear highlights, but the other three species were found in numbers well above average, as were House Sparrows.

In retrospect, the 2014 Ann Arbor CBC was essentially an "average" count, much like the 2013 edition was, but for entirely different reasons. As I wrote last year, "that is not to imply that the 2013 edition was a bad count – I think it is safe to say that, yes, average means just that, average, but that average can still have some goodies on offer." That statement very much holds true for us in 2014: there were a few high counts (four in all), several low/lowish counts (field birds and a handful of passerines), unusual species (Barred Owl, Pileated Woodpecker, Rusty Blackbird, to name a few), and some interesting overall/long term trends (think woodpeckers). From the pre-dawn Great Horned Owl hooting contest until the sky filled with crows at dusk, I know I had a great day out in the field, and I can only imagine that most of you share that sentiment.

If the spreadsheet with our results whets your appetite for more, take a look at National Audubon's summary of last season's results. The amount of information available through NAS's website is simply staggering, and allows you to manipulate and review data with a few clicks – amazing stuff!

Last and most definitely not least, I have to express my heart-felt gratitude to all of you, volunteers; you helped make this year's count a smoothly-run event once again – without you, counters, area leaders, and potluck/feeder watch coordinators, our count would not be as well-oiled a machine as it is. A special "thank you" is in order to Artemis and Harold Eyster, who were kind enough to fill in as area 5 leaders in Mike Kielb's absence. They did so admirably and capably, so muchas gracias! See you all next year!

See the 2014 data below, or click here for a PDF or here for an Excel spreadsheet (the PDF and the spreadsheet show the totals by area within the count circle).

Canada Goose 4,390
Dom. Graylag Goose 4
Mute Swan 31
Trumpeter Swan 18
Northern Pintail 3
Northern Shoveler 1
American Black Duck 18
Mallard 1,432
Am. Black Duck x Mallard hybrid 3
Green-winged Teal 1
Lesser Scaup 1
Common Goldeneye 10
Bufflehead 3
Hooded Merganser 49
Common Merganser 87
Ruddy Duck 1
Dom. Muscovy Duck 1
Pied-billed Grebe 1
Ring-necked Pheasant 2
Wild Turkey 101
Great Blue Heron 8
Turkey Vulture 5
Bald Eagle 1
Sharp-shinned Hawk 2
Cooper's Hawk 23
accipiter sp. 1
Red-tailed Hawk 91
American Kestrel 2
Peregrine Falcon 1
American Coot 2
Ring-billed Gull 122
American Herring Gull 16
gull sp. 9
Rock Pigeon 519
"white" Rock Pigeon 4
Mourning Dove 624
Barred Owl 2
Eastern Screech-Owl 43
Great Horned Owl 26
Belted Kingfisher 3
Red-bellied Woodpecker 156
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1
Downy Woodpecker 240
Hairy Woodpecker 31
Northern Flicker 30
Pileated Woodpecker 2
woodpecker sp. 4
Blue Jay 427
American Crow 17,000
Black-capped Chickadee 903
Tufted Titmouse 228
Red-breasted Nuthatch 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 299
Brown Creeper 14
Winter Wren 3
Carolina Wren 31
Golden-crowned Kinglet 15
Eastern Bluebird 122
Hermit Thrush 1
American Robin 484
European Starling 4,189
Cedar Waxwing 12
Yellow-rumped Warbler 2
Eastern Towhee 1
American Tree Sparrow 319
Song Sparrow 15
Swamp Sparrow 1
White-throated Sparrow 64
White-crowned Sparrow 1
Dark-eyed Junco 477
Lapland Longspur 1
Northern Cardinal 491
Rusty Blackbird 1
Brown-headed Cowbird 302
House Finch 473
Purple Finch 2
Common Redpoll 12
Pine Siskin 174
American Goldfinch 753
House Sparrow 1,296

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