Last Wednesday, Dec. 15, was the Prescott Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count. I have participated in Christmas Bird Counts since I was a teenager.
Each year my assigned area is Granite Basin. It is a very large geographical area to cover, extending from the intersection of Iron Springs and Granite Basin roads, all the way to Granite Mountain.
As you may recall, last week — Tuesday night into Wednesday morning — a strong winter storm passed through the Arizona Central Highlands. The storm started with high winds and strong rains, followed by a sudden drop in temperature that resulted in instant ice, with a thin layer of snow on top.
Early Wednesday morning, I couldn’t even get into my vehicle, as my whole car was encased with a thick layer of ice. It took several pots of hot water to get my car door open so I could get on my way!
Needless to say, the birding conditions were less-than-ideal. It was about 21degrees, and everything was covered in ice. Driving was treacherous, and walking was downright scary. I have had two previous experiences of falling on ice, and I did my best to avoid falling a third time.
Not only did the ice and snow affect me, but it affected bird behavior. All of their natural food sources were covered under a layer of ice, snow, or both. The intense cold necessitated them finding food to maintain their metabolism. This was not an easy task under those conditions!
I found the best place to find birds was on north-facing slopes that were exposed to direct sunlight. For example, on the north side of the meadow, west of Granite Basin Lake, I found a mixed flock of seed-eaters, including white-crowned sparrow, white-throated sparrows, Lincoln’s sparrows, fox sparrows, song sparrows and a slew of spotted towhees, all feeding together. I felt like I hit the jackpot!
Most of the habitat in the Basin could be considered a coniferous forest. Over the 20-plus years I’ve been canvassing this area, I have had good success finding a variety of wintering bird species found specifically in this habitat, including pine siskins, Cassin’s finches, red crossbills, brown creepers, golden-crowned kinglets and sometimes evening grosbeaks. This year, I did not find a single bird of this kind. It was a very different bird count.
There were definitely other gaps in my bird list, too. For example, I did not see a single wren species all day! In years past, I’ve seen winter wrens, Bewick’s wren, canyon wren, winter wren, marsh wren, but this year, not one.
Interestingly, I saw three species in my count area this year that I have never observed in all of my previous years of doing the bird count — Bald Eagle, white-throated sparrows and Lewis’s Woodpecker. It is really exciting for me to see a ‘new’ bird species in an area I have birded repeatedly over many years.
The Lewis’s woodpecker was especially exciting to me. This brings me to nine different woodpecker species that I have seen in Granite Basin over the years: ladder-backed, Gila, hairy, acorn, Lewis’s, Williamson’s Sapsucker, red-naped sapsucker, red-breasted sapsucker and northern flicker.
All in all it was a great day. After all, I got to go birding for 10 hours, and I observed 44 different species! It eventually warmed up, reaching a high of about 40 degrees. It turned out to be a truly lovely day, and, due to the ice, I had the Basin to myself most of the day!
Have a lovely Christmas, and until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn in Prescott, Arizona. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.