In my announcement article from early November I speculated about the possible impact the weather in general, and el Niño in particular, might have on our count. Well, as I’m looking over the results from our efforts on December 19, I can only imagine that the mild conditions that dominated southern Michigan during the fall months and into December resulted in a decidedly interesting outcome.

With daytime temperatures staying mostly (well) above the freezing mark in the weeks leading up to the count, the scene appeared set for plenty of open water and no snow cover to speak of. What that would mean for the count remained to be seen….

Count day came with temperatures in the 20s, which is where they stayed for the remainder of the day. Overcast skies with little wind turned into overcast skies with ever increasing winds (gusts above 25 mph). Those clouds eventually produced some flurries and even some sleet. I can only imagine these increasingly unpleasant conditions caused birds to hunker down as the day progressed, and prompted observer teams to call it a day.

Speaking of observers, we had an unusually large contingent of nine counters watching their feeders, with several good birds as a result. Turnout of field observers was in our count’s usual range of around 60, which continues to rank it in the higher ranges of the state. Looking over the tally broken down by count area, it seems each area turned up several good birds, details of which you can find in what follows. As a whole, the total tally ended up at 71 species (slightly below the recent 10-year average of 72 species), along with an accipiter sp., and a count week Merlin. The total number of individuals, 21,699, is about two-thirds of the 10-year average, but in large part that count is heavily dependent on the number of crows that are tallied at the roost located in Ann Arbor. The location of that roost largely determines how many crows are counted, and the wild fluctuations in crow numbers closely correspond to the up- and-down swings in our CBC overall bird counts. Per crow counter Dea Armstrong, it was hard to get a handle on the incoming crows this year, which caused the number to come out lower than in (some) years past.

Just like last year, the mild weather leading up to the count was a mixed blessing; to quote my 2014 assessment: “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).” Indeed, what was true then, held true now. Every last body of water was open, which resulted in some unusual finds in the waterfowl category, but also depressed overall numbers, possibly because ducks simply were able to remain farther north or in places outside of our circle. Fifteen species of waterfowl is pretty much in line with recent results, but among those fifteen were several unusual species: nine Tundra Swans, a Northern Pintail, and 2 Northern Shovelers were certainly exciting. More worryingly, we found only four American Black Ducks, which is the lowest in quite a few years—let’s hope they were still in areas to our north. We missed Wood Duck altogether, a species that ought to at least be present in the Huron River with the favorable conditions our area experienced. Basically, all goose, swan, and ducks species were present in numbers (significantly) below the recent 10-year average. Bucking this trend was Pied-billed Grebe, which set a new all-time high with seven (previous high was three), and has become virtually annual on our count over the past decade. American Coot set a new high-count as well and came close to hitting the triple-digit mark, which has not happened since the late 1990s.

Somewhat surprisingly, only two Great Blue Herons were found in scattered locations (about a ¼ of the recent 10-year average), but a close to average total of eight Belted Kingfishers were found. Given that both species rely on open water these contradictory results are quite puzzling. If you were present at the potluck/tally, or peeked at the result summary list, you will have noticed that an absolutely staggering total of 320 Sandhill Cranes were found—this number absolutely obliterated our previous high count of 4 (yes, four). If that does not suffice to put this year’s amazing number in perspective, perhaps this will: in our 68-year CBC history prior to 2015, Sandhill Crane was turned up exactly six times—1987 (1), 1998 (2), 2001 (4), 2004 (CW), 2008 (CW), and 2012 (4). So although they appear to be getting more common, the 2015 total is completely out of the ordinary for our count. Jerry Jourdan, the compiler for the Monroe CBC, also noted the large number of cranes (63) on that count, and per Gary Siegrist, some 2,000 cranes were found during the Waterloo CBC, many of them coming in to the marshes of the Haehnle Preserve. Extraordinary stuff!
Both large raptors, Turkey Vulture and Bald Eagle, posted record counts, with ten vultures and as many as nine eagles (at writing, I’m working on eliminating possible duplicates). The other hawks and falcons were present in near-average or slightly below-average numbers, with the two Peregrines coming close to tying the three American Kestrels for most numerous falcon. Nighttime observers found only two owl species, and in numbers well below the recent average at that: 23 Screech-Owls is only about two-thirds of the to-be-expected number, whereas 5 Great Horned Owls is less than half. It’s not quite clear if these low counts are due to the fact that the owls just weren’t calling, if there was a reduced observer effort on our part, or if the weather adversely affected owling (or all of the above). Only time will tell, and owls have proven to be subject to rather wild swings in recent years. So unless this trend continues, I don’t believe we need to worry about our circle’s owls just yet.

Just like on the 2014 count, a measly two Ring-necked Pheasants were found, and I for one do not think we will ever get back into double-digit tallies for this species, in spite of the continued presence of seemingly suitable habitat. Conversely, Wild Turkeys posted another record tally, with a whopping 168 birds counted in six out of eight count areas in our circle. How long before all eight report them, and how much longer before 200+ tallies become the norm? For some historical context please see the chart below for the progression of Wild Turkey reports in our count circle, from 1989 (first reported) through 2015:

Although its increase is not quite as impressive as that of Wild Turkey, Pileated Woodpecker is clearly on the increase in our circle as well. This year’s trio tied the high count set in 2012, and the fact that these three birds were seen in different count areas indicates that this species is colonizing different areas, and that these birds are not part of a small concentrated population. Other than that, it was a less than average year for woodpeckers, but given the steady increases we saw in recent years, this was more or less to be expected.

Kicking off passerine reporting is what I can only describe as the highlight of the 2015 count: Rachelle Roake located our count’s first ever record of EASTERN PHOEBE along the B2B trail from Dexter to Hudson Mills Metropark. Per area leader Rob French, this bird was present for some two weeks after the count, providing for a highly unusual record for Michigan CBCs. Without a doubt, the mild weather leading up to the count allowed this flycatcher to survive in our area for as long as it did.

With a small number of minor exceptions (see below), every single songbird species was reported in numbers below the recent 10-year average. It seems that the mild weather meant that quite a few migrants (like White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco) were able to survive farther north and simply were not present in “normal” levels of abundance. Moreover, many birds were not as concentrated in productive areas as they would regularly be due to the lack of snow cover and milder conditions in general. Good news for the birds, not so good for us observers! In many ways, it seems that this year’s count was very similar to the one in 2014, when I noted that “[m]any 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.”

Our resident passerine species must have been spread out quite thinly, what with all being reported in lower numbers than the mild conditions would lead one to assume. Still, I found it odd that so few of some of the semi-hardy winter birds were found—only one Brown Creeper? Fewer than half of our normal number of Carolina Wrens? Only four Golden-crowned Kinglets, when 21 is the recent average? Pretty odd, all in all, but there may be perfectly good explanations for these low tallies out there. Species that rely largely on berries during the winter months were still down compared to the 10-year average, but nowhere near to last year’s depressed numbers.

Sparrow-like birds are always of interest to me, in that the category includes several common species, as well as a number of potential rarities. To start off with the latter: two Fox Sparrows and two Swamp Sparrows were certainly of note. However, the four common/usual sparrows (American Tree, Song, White-throated, and Junco) were, once again, found in numbers from 15 to 50+% below the average. As I speculated above, many of these birds were probably still to the north or more widely scattered in surrounding areas.

Although a blackbird on our count is always of note, for the first time since 1994 three species in the icterid family were turned up, even if only in small numbers. Somewhat oddly, these birds were found in widely scattered locations, not in a single mixed flock as one might expect—each of the four observations was in a different count area!

Finches followed the overall passerine trends. No “winter” finches were found, and the other three species were down by 25 to some 60% over the recent average. Although House Sparrow numbers were pretty much average, it is worth noting that one of our count areas completely missed this species, which most of us would consider a common and hard to miss bird—that just goes to show, you can never tell what you will or will not see when you go out birding!

So where does all this leave us? I dare say that the 2015 Ann Arbor CBC was quite similar to the 2014 edition. Mild weather leading up to the count, loads of open water, and no snow cover in 2015 pretty well mirrored the 2014 conditions. Add to that an average species count and average to below-average numbers for each species, and voilà—there you have it, an average result. If this strikes you as a somewhat negative assessment, that is not what I’m trying to convey. As always, my words about the 2013 edition still ring true and help put my use of “average” in perspective: “that is not to imply that [it] 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.” Just like we do every time we run our CBC, amazing birds are turned up (Eastern Phoebe certainly fits that bill!), unusual or uncommon birds were spread out nicely throughout our circle, and high counts stirred our imagination, with the Sandhill Crane invasion filling that role this year. And, no matter what, we can all agree that a day spent in the field birding beats pretty much any other day!

I have summarized our finds in the accompanying spreadsheet, so take a look at the results of everyone’s hard work. If you would like to read about the outcome of the 2014 CBC on a grand scale, please take a look at the summary article on the National Audubon website.

This site serves as the interactive version of the “American Birds” magazine of years past, and as such, it provides not only all of the interesting articles and information, but can also link you to much more detailed custom data. It’s very easy to get sucked into for a few hours, and most definitely worth it.

As I’m finishing up, a few words are in order about two long-serving area leaders who have decided to give up that role. After exactly one decade at the helm in area 4, Cathy Carroll will be passing the baton to a new area leader. Her leadership was characterized by solid coverage and excellent reporting. During her tenure, area 4 counters found, to name but one, our CBC’s first record of Bonaparte’s Gull, during the 2012 edition. Thanks, Cathy, for a job well done! To find the first time our second retiree participated in an Ann Arbor CBC I had to go back to the “Fifty Years & Counting” booklet (a history of the first 50 years of our CBC)—on 12/17/1978 Roger Wykes joined the ranks of our CBC volunteers, and after a whopping 37 years as an integral part of our count, Roger has decided to bow out. During those nearly four decades as a CBC volunteer, Roger, along with his late wife Barbara, ran area 3 for more than 20 years, and mentored many of the Ann Arbor area’s young birders. With Roger at the helm, area 3 counters turned up several notable birds, among them the only record for Bohemian Waxwing (per Barb Wykes) and the only record for a hummingbird sp. Thank you, Roger, your contributions will be missed!

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t profoundly thank the rest of you, the many, many volunteers that help our count run so well, and guarantee the excellent coverage that we take for granted. Without you there would be no birds to report, no potluck to enjoy, nor would there be yet another important data set for me to enter on the NAS website. The data we collect and report helps determine trends among our winter birds and may just provide the information that helps protect them and their wintertime habitat. So thank you all for that! Hope to see you again in December of 2016!

Results of the 2015 CBC can be found HERE (PDF). 

by Jacco Gelderloos

Eastern Phoebe by Cephas (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons