Christmas count: Warmth keeps birds hanging around region

2013-02-11T00:15:00Z 2013-02-11T06:48:25Z Christmas count: Warmth keeps birds hanging around regionAlma Gaul The Quad-City Times
February 11, 2013 12:15 am  • 

The Quad-City area set a record for the number of bird species tallied — 95 — during the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Kelly McKay, a field biologist from Hampton, Ill., who co-compiled the numbers, attributes the high number to the mild fall and early winter weeks.

Warmer temperatures left open water, attracting an abundance of waterfowl such as ducks, geese and swans, and water birds such as pelicans, herons and gulls. In addition, semi-hardy species such as yellow-bellied sapsuckers, robins and eastern meadowlarks, were persuaded to stick around rather than flying farther south, he said.

The Christmas census of bird populations has been conducted nationally for 113 years under the auspices of the National Audubon Society. On designated days in December and January, volunteers count birds at feeders and in the field, taking note of numbers and species. Over time, the data reflect trends.

In the Quad-City area, there are eight field counting areas, each encompassing an expanse of about 117 square miles.

Among other observations from this year’s count:

n Most unusual bird sighted. A Townsend’s Solitaire, a type of thrush, and a mountain bluebird, both western mountain birds. McKay and another field counter spotted these on a count that encompasses the former Savanna Army Depot in Illinois and the Bellevue area in Iowa, north of what’s considered the Quad-City region.

It was exciting, though. McKay and the other counter were playing an audio recording of a bird along a cedar tree-covered bluff (recordings bring out birds) “and out pops a Townsend’s Solitaire,” McKay said.

“We thought, ‘Oh, that will be the bird of the count.’ But then when we were at the Savanna Army Depot, we found the mountain bluebird.”

More Eurasian tree sparrows. These are an invasive species introduced from China in 1870, and their previous normal range was farther south, such as St. Louis. But they are becoming increasingly numerous in the Quad-City region, following the Mississippi River and its tributaries, such as the Rock, Wapsipinicon, Illinois and Cedar rivers.

The birds tend to stay out in the country within a few miles of rivers, which is why people living in cities don’t notice them, McKay said.

Sandhill cranes were fairly numerous. In the Spring Lake area of the Clinton, Iowa/Savanna, Ill., counting area, there were 79, and another 35 were seen in the open farm fields north of Thomson, Ill.

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