The 82nd Chapel Hill Christmas Bird Count on Monday, 26 December 2011 was exceptionally average. Both total number of species, 88, and number of individual birds, 15949, were very close to the 10-year average numbers (88.5 and 15137). We achieved these average numbers with fewer party-hours than normal, though (131.5, average 136), so on a birds per party-hour basis it was a great count, with 121 much higher than the average 110. Since Monday was a hunting day, the parties covering the Jordan Lake game lands had little luck with ducks (which were being shot at) and didn't spend as much time as usual in their areas for fear of being mistaken for a deer.
A few rarites were around: the Rufous Hummingbird at a feeder in Chapel Hill, banded earlier by Susan Campbell, showed up to be counted. It's the sixth for our count, all in the last 12 years. Brian Bockhahn had a couple of nice surprises at the Southwest Durham wastewater plant - a Greater Yellowlegs (our third) and a Black-and-white Warbler (our fourth). Continuing the trend over the past 5 years, Common Ravens are being seen more and more frequently. This year Derb Carter had two in the usual spot near the quarry on NC 54, but Kent Fiala also had one in his area for the first time. This is our fourth report of Common Raven, all since 2006. Derb also found an Orange-crowned Warbler, our fifth. A report of a pair of Northern Waterthrushes, which would be a first for the count, is awaiting confirmation by a more experienced observer. A Lincoln's Sparrow, seen near University Lake by Andrew Thornton the day before the count, is an excellent count-week bird. We've had Lincoln's Sparrow on the count just once, with 6 on the 1973 count, but this sounds fishy to me - I'd bet they were Swamp Sparrows instead.
Other nice finds on count day included 2 Wilson's Snipes (Carter, Phil Warren's team), a Blue-headed Vireo (Jeff Pippen's party), 2 Gray Catbirds (Warren and Jon Bennett), a Common Yellowthroat (Fiala), a pair of White-crowned Sparrows (Carter), and an adult male Baltimore Oriole (Julia Shields).
Considering that this year was such an average-seeming count, we set some surprising record highs for several very common species. Wood Duck (61, 53 in 1986), Red-shouldered Hawk (38, 37 in 2001), Downy Woodpecker (166, 146 in 2006), Carolina Chickadee (651, 562 in 2003), Tufted Titmouse (564, 441 in 2009), White-breasted Nuthatch (136, 128 in 2003), Brown-headed Nuthatch (163, 146 in 2006), Eastern Bluebird (477, 445 in 2006). Three other species were not records, but more than doubled their average counts: Pied-billed Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, and Bald Eagle. Norm Budnitz and I have been wondering about the chickadees and titmice for years: Chickadees average higher on all the Triangle-area Christmas counts, while titmice are almost always higher on the local spring counts. On fall bird counts chickadees are slightly ahead of titmice. My guess is that there's a detection difference: the average observer more easily detects titmice when they're singing their distinctive peter-peter song, as they tend to do all day in early May. The various call notes are more easily missed or confused for another species.
We set no record lows and there were no big misses, but a few were at less than half of their average numbers: Killdeer, Rock Pigeon, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Pine Warbler, Eastern Meadowlark, Purple Finch, and House Sparrow. What is going on with Pine Warblers this winter? Our tally of 14 is the lowest since 1972 (average count 38). Pine Warblers were also scarce on the neighboring Durham and Jordan Lake counts.
Team honors: Derb Carter, covering the Dairyland Road area, once again had the highest species count, with 63 species (1160 individuals). Thanks to a couple of decent flocks of blackbirds and robins, Will Cook's Mason Farm team tallied the most individual birds, with 2503 (50 species).
Most abundant birds: American Robin (1239, White-throated Sparrow (1254), Common Grackle (879), and Dark-eyed Junco (821).
Weather: Temperature 36-53 F (both high and low near average), wind from the north at 0-10 mph, partly cloudy, no precipitation, water open. Effort: 48 observers in 21 field parties, 131.5 party hours (117.5 by foot, 14 by car) and 242.5 party miles (72.5 by foot, 190 by car), 6.45 hours and 11.75 miles owling, 11 people and 24 hours watching feeders.
Thanks to all the participants for coming out to count birds on a lovely day!
-- Will Cook, compiler
Full results in PDF format
Chapel Hill Bird Club