Monday, December 19, 2005

The Christmas Count

Our Cosmic Mindbender at yesterday's Christmas Count

At the end of the annual Christmas Count everyone  congregates at the Arsenal, the Parks Department headquarters, to report on the birds they've seen. The counters are divided into seven different groups,  each accounting for a different section of the park.

In Redtails in Love [p 148-152] I tell the story of the year I was assigned the southwest quadrant at the Christmas Count. That is the least popular assignment -- the only section of the park with no water body. That means a lot of house sparrows, pigeons and gulls. But that year we triumphed over everybody with a great bird.

At yesterday's Count I ended up on a team in one of the park's richest sections--the northwest. Perhaps it makes for a more appealing story when the poorest section gets the best bird. But this year, fortunately for me, it didn't turn out that way.

The poor southwest section reported 450 pigeons,151 House Sparrows, 223 Common Grackles [probably the ones still roosting for the night at the Grand Army Plaza] 93 Starlings and not much else. Meanwile the rich and desirable northwesters ended up with the best bird of the count -- indeed, a cosmic mindbender bird that had certainly never been reported in a Christmas Count before, and had only been seen in Central Park once or twice before during the last 150 years.

Half of the 20 member Northwest team was covering an area near the West Drive around 106th Street. Another group headed for the Blockhouse, a spot deep in the woods where various lowlifes often hang out -- not a place to go alone. There were about ten of us when a team member named Alan called out -- Hey everybody, here's an unusual bird. His binoculars were aimed at a bird perched near the top of a bare tree just east of the Blockhouse.

It had a long tail like a Mockingbird. It was sort of grey. But we could see that the bill was not long and straight like a Mockingbird's. This bird's bill was hooked. I don't know who first said the word Shrike. But soon many field guides materialized out of backpacks and pockets, and the bird was compared with many pictures. Our conviction grew stronger, though the light was poor. No it couldn't be a Mockingbird. Then what else could it be? A Northern Shrike? A Northern Shrike!

One team member, Steve Baldwin, had a camera, and took a few shots. One of them is at the beginning of this posting. [You can click on it to enlarge.] I don't know if it will completely convince the final arbiters at the Audubon orThe Rare Bird Alert, or whoever it is who makes final decisions about such things. But we few, we lucky few who were at the Blockhouse this morning, knew we had seen a marvelous bird.


A bit of history about Christmas Counts
From Paul Baicich, via the Birding Community E-Bulletin

It started in 1900 when Frank Chapman introduced the concept of a Christmas Bird Count as an alternative to a Christmas Bird Shoot (also called a Side Hunt). Why not count and appreciate birds instead of hunting them
indiscriminately? The effort caught on, and in a few years the pioneers of
the Audubon movement institutionalized the practice as their own.

Now let us fast forward to the next century. The 106th consecutive CBC, a
massive effort in citizen science effort is currently upon us. Last year
there were more than 2,000 CBC circles and more than 56,000 participants,
who counted and reported birds from throughout the U.S., Canada, the
Caribbean, Latin America, Guam, and the Northern Marianas.

We encourage you to find a Christmas Bird Count near where you live and
participate. This year's CBC period extends from 14 December 2005 to 5
January 2006.