When it comes to the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count season, the 110th annual edition of which just ended Tuesday, the bald eagle rarely if ever makes the region's "highlights" listed by various count compilers.
It is not that the national symbol is taken for granted by serious birders, but they know all about the recovery of the great bird in the last 20 years and are familiar with its comings and goings year-round. So it usually is the oddity - the wayward species or two, or few that "shouldn't" be here that make the birding buzz.
But this time around has been the season of the eagle in these parts, with several of the area counts turning in record numbers of the majestic brown and white raptors, including a phenomenal 125 at the Monroe, Mich., area count.
"I was able to get a number of photos of the 125 bald eagles we counted [mostly at the Monroe Power Plant], but also an eagle attack on a black duck at the [Luna Pier] Whiting Plant earlier in the day," said Jerry Jourdan, Monroe count compiler for 18-plus seasons. "I have a full blog write-up with totals at http://jerryjourdan3.blogspot.com."
Matt Anderson, compiler of the annual Toledo-area count, reported 68 bald eagles, an all-time high for the 78-year-old count. It is run by the Toledo Naturalists' Association and considered the flagship of Ohio counts with a record 96 species tallied several times.
"It blows away the previous record of 25 from 2007," said Anderson. "Tom Kemp and Elliot Tramer had 33 at Little Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge and a group I led at Bayshore Power Plant had 18.
"At Bayshore, they were easy to count as most sat on the ice - one of them pouncing on what appeared to be a healthy ring-billed gull. Others were found in North Toledo, along the Maumee River and a couple of other sites. It's certainly possible that there was some overlap, but this is an unprecedented local one-day total any way you cut it.
"We also watched a pair of peregrine falcons at Bayshore that sat on the ice on either side of an apparently injured lesser scaup that was all alone in a small open slit of water. Each falcon was half-heartedly harassing the helpless duck."
The Fremont area count tallied 45 bald eagles, according to compiler John Sawvel.
Part of the explanation for so many eagles, according to Mark Shieldcastle, is that "we've just got a heck of a lot of bald eagles nowadays." He is research director for the Oak Harbor-based Black Swamp Bird Observatory and joined the Fremont count.
Shieldcastle noted that mid-winter eagle surveys in recent years have shown as many as 600 or so eagles wintering in the state, both resident birds and migratory birds. That alone accounts for a lot of sightings.
Too, the warm-water discharges behind the power plants, where so many eagles were observed, tend to attract schools of temperature-sensitive gizzard shad, which can make fine food - if you are an eagle.
Cindy Bussell, who lives on Allen's Cove at Luna Pier, did not participate in the bird counts but said she certainly is an eagle fan. She recently has been counting 6 to 18 birds on the edge of the ice on the Lake Erie shoreline, but estimates as many as 50 birds on some occasions. They show up mornings and evenings.
"They're fishing the edge of the ice and open water," Bussell said. "People travel all the way to Alaska to see eagles and we have them right here. It's awesome."
Eagles aside, the various count reports in so far had a flock of noteworthy finds. Here goes:
TNA's Anderson noted the Toledo count's final tally of 95 species is just one short of the 96 recorded both in 2007 and 2008. "So we were a single species short of Toledo's and the state's all-time high [set first in 1978 by TNA].
"The freeze-up that occurred just before our count eliminated all open water in the marshes. Had there been just a small amount left, we undoubtedly would have added some puddle ducks that regularly appear on our list but which had no doubt been pushed south just days before. I have little doubt that we will crack the 100 species barrier one of these years."
He noted, for example, enough "missed" species that have a fair chance of showing up to pass the 100-mark. They include mute swan, rough-legged hawk, yellow-bellied sapsucker, northern shrike, eastern towhee, purple finch, and pine siskin. Many of these showed up in other area counts.
Anderson said that gull and diving duck counts were very high, and that 16 northern mockingbirds were a TNA holiday high. Chuck Anderson and Mark Miller found a surprising 10 of them in their assigned territory which included areas east of the river in the south part of the TNA count circle.
TNA count highs and notables were recorded for cackling goose, 1, a first count-record; surf scoter, 1, the first record since 1961; long-tailed duck, 1; great blue heron, 132; Cooper's hawk, 31; red-tailed hawk, 67; lesser black-backed gull, 18; long-eared owl, 4; short-eared owl, 1; northern saw-whet owl, 3; red-bellied woodpecker, 52; downy woodpecker, 207; eastern bluebird, 6; brown thrasher, 1; vesper sparrow, 1; snow bunting, 318, and northern cardinal 440. In all, 75,874 individual birds were counted.
In the fourth annual Rudolph area count, compiler Kemp reports 64 species of birds numbering 16,021 individuals.
"The most numerous bird was the European starling [5,179] followed by Canada goose [1,994] and horned lark [1,839]. The most unusual species on the count was the northern goshawk found by Steve and Andrew Lauer near the BGSU golf course.
Also unusual were cackling goose, lesser black-backed gull, short-eared owl, and pileated woodpecker. Twenty-two species were tallied in record-high numbers.
Kemp also included an interesting diversion in his count commentary: "On a different note, my brother Bob and I recently returned from three weeks in Thailand, looking for birds [of course] and mammals. We found 377 kinds of birds and some good mammals too - Asian elephant, gaur, Malayan porcupine, white-handed gibbon, dusky langur, northern treeshrew, four types of civets, and more.
"Thailand is a pretty easy country in which to travel - good highways [most signed in English!], great national parks with camping, good food, and friendly people. And we did it all for just over $2000, including airfare! I would certainly go back."
Rounding out count highlights, Monroe's Jourdan listed 77 species and 91,000 birds overall. Highlights besides the eagles included a snow goose, an Eastern towhee, Great Egrets, 8; rough-legged hawk, 2, and pine siskin, 10.
Fremont's Sawvel said they only tallied 62 species this time, compared to 77 species on last year's count. But last year's number was higher than normal for the Fremont CBC.
He said frozen marshes reduced waterfowl numbers. A couple groups observed large numbers of blackbirds [72,183 common grackles, 19,924 red-winged blackbirds, 5,704 European starlings], "so that put the total bird count for the day over 100,000 [111,461]"
Sawvel listed highlight species as a killdeer, a merlin, and northern mockingbirds, 2, and a northern shrike.
All of the counts eventually will be compiled in a report by the National Audubon Society. Details are available at audubon.org.
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