Weathering the Christmas Bird Counts

It’s December 17th and time for the Christmas Bird Count at Mule Springs Farm.  This is the second year I’ve counted birds and entered my data at eBird.org.  Before moving from Alaska to Oregon, a little over two years ago, my friends and I would don waterproof suits and brave the stormy maritime climate in Southeast Alaska to look for birds. We ventured out the weekend closest to December 19th with our notebooks and binoculars and came home with closer friendships, soaked outer garments, and our notebooks listing only a few birds.

 

Last year’s visibility for the Mule Springs Farm bird count was terrible.  Thick ice fog enshrouded the land and reminded me of countless foggy days in Alaska.  I saw two Red-tailed Hawks come off their perches on neighboring Ponderosa Pines.  Lazily circling once above the meadow, they returned to their trees.  A Northern Flicker passed through the murk as I walked, across the ice-meadow, below the barn.  The bird’s undulating flight and its white rump patch helped me make no mistake when I jotted down Northern Flicker – West Riparian Meadow — in my small notebook.

The Ponderosa Pines where the Red-tailed Hawks perched.
The Ponderosa Pines where the Red-tailed Hawks perched.

 

The closer I approached the low-lying creek the longer the fuzzy crystals became.  Hoarfrost clung to every plant stem and blade.  Kickin’ Mule Creek ran high and noisily as it bumped along its frozen cradle. A few white snowberries, like sticky dried marshmallows, clung stubbornly to bare dark branches. The seemingly endless corridor of winter was unbroken by any bird sounds until two sharp cries rang out, and I was startled by bursts of blue and silver movement. Two Western Scrub-Jays darted amongst the “tangled bine-stems” of the creek bed thicket. The pair had watched me, silently, as I crunched along, until they could no longer remain voiceless and had to tell of the imminent intruder.

Mule Springs Farm enshrouded in fog and frost.
Mule Springs Farm enshrouded in fog and frost.

 

As it turned out on that day I only saw three species of birds before turning back because I was bone-cold.  The bird count finished, I entered Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Flicker, and Western Scrub-jay into the eBird website and wondered what the second bird count at Mule Springs Farm might bring.

Wintry desert poinsetta or mullen plant found while hiking on the farm in December.
Wintry desert poinsetta or mullen plant found while hiking on the farm in December.

 

This year’s weather brought a torrent of change. We experienced a blizzard, sleet, rain, fierce wind, and warm sunshine. And my day wasn’t free to pick the best weather to count birds, since Bruce had also planned a Mexican Christmas feast for the workers up at the new house.

Most of the workers and builders enjoy posole, a Mexican stew typically served at Christmas. Our first meal in the living room of our new home.
Most of the workers and builders enjoy posole, a Mexican stew typically served at Christmas. Our first meal in the living room of our new home.

 

Since the cold strong wind was too brutal to brave a search across the entire property, and I feed birds around the barn, I decided to conduct a feeder count for the farm’s second Christmas Bird Count.

 

After we shared a wonderful posole (a Mexican stew of pork, hominy, mild red peppers and coriander) with the builders, I set myself up to watch birds.  The wind blew fiercely, biting, and it made me uncomfortable, so I wore several layers: a turtleneck, flannel shirt, a hooded polar fleece wind-stop jacket, a woolen cowl, boiled wool hat (the one I wore in the Arctic), and fleece pants. I sat in the doorway of the tack room in a chair and spied through my binoculars eight Spotted Towhee, five Golden-crowned Sparrows, thirteen Dark-eyed Juncos, twenty-one House Finch, three Western Scrub-Jay, one House Sparrow, and a “partridge in a pear tree.”  Please don’t believe that last part.

 

Then the wind slackened a bit, but a solid wall of dark clouds slid in.  I placed my binoculars and notebook in their bucket inside the tack room, as the snow began to heavily fall.  Within minutes the snowfall turned blizzard, and soon I wondered where the donkeys were. It was unlike them to stay out in poor weather—rain and snow would consistently bring them back to the barn.  Bruce agreed we should go and look for them. So, up the driveway we walked as snow poured around us and stuck to our clothes and faces. We planned to get to the house, because it is higher on the land and we can see across the prairie. It was difficult to imagine the donkeys would be on the prairie trying to graze during this storm.

 

Bruce was ahead of me, and I heard him say, “I see ears.”

 

“Where?” I asked.

 

“In the garage,” he said.

 

And both donkeys were inside the garage standing on the carpeting the men had laid to keep the new concrete floor warm.  Bruce laughed, and I wondered if the donkeys would follow me down to the barn in this raging storm. If I waited and the snow got deeper, they might get stuck in the garage all night. As of now, the light was failing.

 

“Hey guys, are you ready to go?” I said.

 

Ziggy barely looked up, but Chippo shifted his feet and came nearer to me.

 

“Let’s go,” I said, and I gave the hand signal for “walk on.”

 

To my surprise, Chippo the donkey who often only follows Ziggy (the leader) followed me right on out picking his way across two by fours and crumpled tarps.

 

Ziggy did not move and seemed to say, “I’m quite content here.”  But once Chippo was out in the intense white-fall with me, and we began to walk toward the barn, Ziggy sought an escape from the garage, and he quickly followed after us.

 

Donkeys are desert animals at heart, so I was thrilled they trusted me enough to accompany me through the wet storm back down to the barn. It was a really nice ending for a sort – of wild weather second annual Christmas Bird Count day.

The author with her donkeys, Ziggy and Chippo, in the snow on Christmas Eve.
The author with her donkeys, Ziggy and Chippo, in the snow on Christmas Eve.

 

 

Author’s Notes:

Link for eBird.org the birding website where I annually track the birds that come and go at Mule Springs Farm.

 

eBird.org/content/ebird

 

The quoted phrase “tangled bine-stems” comes from Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “Weathering the Christmas Bird Counts

  1. ” Merry Christmas – Happy Holidays and Happy New Year 2013 ” to Everyone @ Mule Springs Farm – Thank You for The Year of nice stories and sharing Your memories , they always seem to bring peace to Me whenever I read each story – and The New House and all the hard work is just a great story in itself – Great Job everyone and keep them stories coming in 2013 …… I sure do appreciate the good reading and peacefulness ……. Thank You !! ~ Mike ~

    1. ” Merry Christmas – Happy Holidays and Happy New Year 2013 ” to Everyone @ Mule Springs Farm – Thank You for The Year of nice stories and sharing Your memories , they always seem to bring peace to Me whenever I read each story – and The New House and all the hard work is just a great story in itself – Great Job everyone and keep them stories coming in 2013 …… I sure do appreciate the good reading and peacefulness ……. Thank You !! ~ Mike ~

      Thanks Mike — I appreciate the comments and thanks for reading. Happy New Year! Sher

  2. I loved all the elements here–the various birds, the frosty fog, the Mexican Christmas feast, and the oncoming snow and worry about the little donkeys out in it! And your details are wonderful, including the marshmellowy snowberries. Jack and I were just talking about my new snowberry bush and the fact that it had dropped all its leaves–and then we saw some others doing the same, so we relaxed. Your photos are always so lovely!

    1. I loved all the elements here–the various birds, the frosty fog, the Mexican Christmas feast, and the oncoming snow and worry about the little donkeys out in it! And your details are wonderful, including the marshmellowy snowberries. Jack and I were just talking about my new snowberry bush and the fact that it had dropped all its leaves–and then we saw some others doing the same, so we relaxed. Your photos are always so lovely!

      Hello Mary and wishing you and Jack a very Happy New Year. It is remarkable how stark the snowberries become only to puff into gorgeous full bushes in the spring. Thanks so much for reading and your comments. Sher

  3. I applaud your dedication doing bird-counts in such wintry weather – but I suppose you’re accustomed to such conditions. I would love to trade you a wintry day for the blistering heat we’ve been experiencing -unusually early in our summner season . Loved the pic of the desert pointsettia, and your description of the snowy countryside.

    1. I applaud your dedication doing bird-counts in such wintry weather – but I suppose you’re accustomed to such conditions. I would love to trade you a wintry day for the blistering heat we’ve been experiencing -unusually early in our summner season . Loved the pic of the desert pointsettia, and your description of the snowy countryside.

      Thanks Alison- I got a note from Reggie yesterday and she mentioned the weather too. I know you are on the other side of the world experiencing HOT weather while we freeze and have snow. It’s funny to think about. Thanks for your kind words, and I wish you a happy and prosperous 2013. p.s. do you know of people doing the Christmas Bird Count in South Africa? Is it popular there?

      1. I consulted a birding friend who said that there’s an on-going National Bird Mapping Project, carried out at specific locations. In addition it seems that some long-established, accredited birders constantly feed data in to … but she wasn’t sure if it was the Ornithological Soc, or Nature Conservation. Seems South Africa has a huge and varied bird population, somewhere between 500 – 700; we have a bird bible, the esteemed (& huge tome) Roberts Guide to Birds of Southern Africa. Its been around for donkey’s years, remember paging thru it in the 1950s on a Rhodesian Farm. Its a classic – do you know it ?

      2. Hi Alison– No, I don’t know the Roberts guide, and if it is primarily for South Africa that may be why. Sounds like you have a lot of birders, but that they are entering data into other sites. But, it may be that scientists communicate with bird data worldwide. i would think it is this way. Interesting — thanks for responding!

  4. I really appreciate the time you take to write these wonderful stories. They give me such a good sense of where you are and what you and Bruce are doing. I don’t have to be there with you to see you both…

    1. I really appreciate the time you take to write these wonderful stories. They give me such a good sense of where you are and what you and Bruce are doing. I don’t have to be there with you to see you both… Thanks Elaine. Happy New Year!

  5. Your comments reminded me of my bird counts in Ketchikan as well. We’d often go over to walk the Gravina road to nowhere and I’d see very few birds in gale force winds. I was always able to pick up quite a few seabirds though in the channel. Great memories! The donkeys (and you Sher) look awesome in the snowfall – cheers and Happy New Year to you!

    1. Your comments reminded me of my bird counts in Ketchikan as well. We’d often go over to walk the Gravina road to nowhere and I’d see very few birds in gale force winds. I was always able to pick up quite a few seabirds though in the channel. Great memories! The donkeys (and you Sher) look awesome in the snowfall – cheers and Happy New Year to you! Thanks Karen — I was telling a friend that it wasn’t that there were not birds in SE Alaska, but you had to be on the shoreline to see them, and that was not any fun in gale force winds so typical in December. But the real die-hards were on the coast, and they had many seabirds on their lists. I just could never muster what it took to do the seashore count. LOL

  6. Another lovely post, Sher – it’s wonderful to read about your festive season.

    I like the final picture of you, Ziggy and Chippo in the swirling snow; no doubt they appreciated being walked back to their warm and cosy barn!

    1. Another lovely post, Sher – it’s wonderful to read about your festive season.

      I like the final picture of you, Ziggy and Chippo in the swirling snow; no doubt they appreciated being walked back to their warm and cosy barn!

      Thanks Reggie. Yes, though snow is not their favorite, because they are desert creatures, they braved the weather to reach “their”barn.

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