Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Brian's December Wastewater CBC Report

The 2015 Muskegon Wastewater Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was conducted on Wednesday, December 16. This was the eleventh consecutive year that we have participated with the official CBC program (coordinated by the National Audubon Society), although results have been submitted to Michigan Audubon since 2000. The designated count circle (15 miles in diameter) mostly encompasses private farmland and woodlots, but it also includes large tracts of public land managed by the Muskegon State Game Area (MSGA) and the Muskegon Wastewater System (MWS). Most birding is accomplished by cruising roads, although MSGA offers lengthy hiking jaunts.

The following ten volunteers, separated among seven parties, assisted with this year's effort: Dayle Vanderwier and Connie Peoples (in the WNW zone), Feller DeWitt (NNW zone), Ric Pedler and Jim Zervos (NNE zone), Charlie DeWitt (ESE zone), Jill Henemyer and Ken Sherburn (at MWS), Marc Miedema (at MWS), and Brian Johnson (at MSGA). Combined, observers accrued 27.5 hours (7.0 on foot, 20.75 by car) and 248 miles (7.4 on foot, 241 by car) of coverage.

Because the weeks preceding the 2015 CBC were accompanied by a strong El NiƱo weather pattern, temperatures in September, October, November, and especially December were warmer than normal. The daily mean of 45° on December 16 tied the highest in the history of the Wastewater CBC. Consequently, all creeks and ponds were devoid of ice, and no snow had covered the ground since November. In fact, only 3.9 inches of snow had fallen thus far this season. Unfortunately, winds were strong on count day, and the 2015 CBC ranks as the second windiest in its history. Skies were overcast all day, and rain fell in the afternoon. Cone crops were essentially absent this fall.

A total of 9,909 individuals, representing 49 species, was recorded on this year's CBC. Total individuals and species both fell below the historical (2000-14) means of 10,842 birds of 55 species.

Ice-free conditions and diligent work by Jill and Ken at the MWS lagoons significantly boosted numbers this year. The total of 7,878 waterbirds, representing thirteen species, was 3,000 birds above average and ranks as the fifth highest since the inception of the count. Moreover, waterbirds comprised 80% of all birds seen this year, and that ratio represents the greatest imbalance in the history of the Wastewater CBC. Bufflehead and Ruddy Duck established new high totals, and the 72 Hooded Mergansers completely annihilated the old record of just two! The Shoveler total of 2,447 was a great winter tally for Michigan, and an Eared Grebe was a Wastewater CBC first.

Raptors were relatively scarce this year. Rough-legged Hawks were missed for the first time ever, but a Peregrine Falcon on the center dike was a nice find. Two Snowy Owls were the only owls encountered.

Due in part to weather conditions on count day, landbird numbers were dismal this year. Not only do strong winds reduce landbird activity in general, but they also severely hinder aural and visual detections. The dreary skies and afternoon rain certainly did not help matters. Moreover, sparse food crops and mild fall weather drastically curtailed numbers of winter visitors. Lingering summering residents were very scarce due to a combination of low breeding productivity, reduced berry crops, and dispersed forage and habitat availability stemming from milder weather.

The only regular landbirds more plentiful than usual were Hairy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, and Golden-crowned Kinglet. Conversely, Horned Lark, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Cedar Waxwing, Snow Bunting, and Song Sparrow were missed entirely. Local Turkey counts remain below their peak from the mid-2000s. Depressingly, Ruffed Grouse, common across Muskegon County three decades ago, seem to have all but disappeared locally
Not surprisingly, numbers of irruptive finches were abysmal, though a single Purple Finch was encountered at MSGA. As was the case at the Muskegon Lake banding station this fall, goldfinches were likewise scarce. On the other hand, one Northern Shrike, one Common Raven, and eight Yellow-rumped Warblers (at MSGA) were welcome finds. An Eastern Meadowlark (at MWS) represented the first for the Wastewater CBC.

Of the species recorded this year, 27 exhibited totals below previous historical means, whereas 22 exceeded those averages. Six species set or matched record high counts. The four most abundant species (Shoveler, Herring Gull, Canada Goose, Mallard, and Starling), comprised 74% of all birds seen. Two new species* recorded on the 2015 CBC raised our cumulative total to 111.
Despite the relatively few landbirds and sub-optimal weather conditions, unusually warm temperatures, a pleasant lunch, and several nice birds provided yet another enjoyable CBC.

Breakdowns of all the birds encountered this year are presented as follows:

Canada Goose - 1443; historical average 2872
Gadwall - 123; average 81; highest count since 2008
American Black Duck - 64; average 133
Mallard - 690; average 515; highest count since 2010
Northern Shoveler - 2447; average 1214; fifth highest count
Lesser Scaup - 15; second highest count
Bufflehead - 153; new high count (previous high 30)
Hooded Merganser - 72; new high count (previous high 2)
Ruddy Duck - 397; new high count (previous high 330)
Wild Turkey - 18; average 112; third lowest count
*Eared Grebe - 1; new species
Great Blue Heron - 1; present 13 of 16 years
Bald Eagle - 7; average 6
Northern Harrier - 3; ties second-highest count
Sharp-shinned Hawk - 2; present 8 of 16 years
Red-tailed Hawk - 11; average 16
American Kestrel - 3; average 7
Peregrine Falcon - 1; third CBC record
Ring-billed Gull - 106; average 120
Herring Gull - 2366; average 2452
Rock Pigeon - 194; average 144
Mourning Dove - 41; average 282; second lowest count
Snowy Owl - 2; present 10 of 16 years
Belted Kingfisher - 1; present 10 of 16 years
Red-bellied Woodpecker - 6; average 16; second lowest count
Downy Woodpecker - 13; average 29; third lowest count
Hairy Woodpecker - 10; average 10
Northern Flicker - 2; average 7
Pileated Woodpecker - 5; average 4
Northern Shrike - 1; present 12 of 16 years
Blue Jay - 72; average 74
American Crow - 166; average 193
Common Raven - 1; third CBC record
Black-capped Chickadee - 69; average 114
Tufted Titmouse - 15; average 30
White-breasted Nuthatch - 11; average 23
Brown Creeper - 3; average 3
Golden-crowned Kinglet - 10; average 3
Eastern Bluebird - 2; average 18; third lowest count
European Starling - 1103; average 1215
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 8; present 10 of 16 years
American Tree Sparrow - 40; average 166; second lowest count
Dark-eyed Junco - 89; average 161; fourth lowest count
Northern Cardinal - 21; average 62; third lowest count
*Eastern Meadowlark - 1; new species
House Finch - 14; average 60; lowest ever count
Purple Finch - 1; present 5 of 16 years
American Goldfinch - 25; average 165; second lowest count
House Sparrow - 19; average 155; second lowest count

Results from the Muskegon Wastewater and the approximately 2,400 other Christmas Bird Counts are submitted to the National Audubon Society, where they can be accessed online ( Many thanks to those who participated this year, and we encourage all interested birders to join us next December.

- Brian Johnson