For the third time in, as of now, four counts, we needed to push the count back a day due to adverse weather. Although this change forced a number of counters to drop out, we still had enough participants to run our historical four routes on the ranch. And the weather co-operated beautifully.
We managed to push our species count total over the century mark for the first time (103). Given the relatively small amount of surface water on the ranch, this total is a bit remarkable and points to the diversity of food and habitat on the ranch. The previous counts were in the mid eighties to mid nineties range. After four counts we see that there is a core group of species (68) that use the ranch every winter and have shown up on all counts so far.
Population swings become part of the intrigue of doing Christmas Counts, particularly as the number of count years increases. This year saw major spikes in certain species such as Ruby-crowned Kinglet (3 yr average of 34 jumped to 137 this year) and Mountain Bluebird (3 yr average of 13-including 0 last year!-jumped to 118 this year). Other species provided examples of sharp declines such as Black-throated Sparrow (3yr average of 141 dropped to 78 this year) and Canyon Towhee (3yr average of 90 dropped to 29 this year). Still other species remain surprisingly consistent such as Western Bluebird ( 3yr average of 27-this year 28) and Curve-billed Thrasher ( 3yr average 9-this year 11).
With the addition of 13 species new for the count, our cumulative 4yr total stands at 128. This year’s count included a staggering diversity of sparrows (19 species) with the following being first timers: Cassin’s, Fox, White-throated, and Field.
Each count produces a number of memorable moments. For me that moment came in the afternoon as our team was heading up New Tank Canyon in the northwest portion of the ranch. We saw a cloud of soaring birds on the horizon and hurried ahead to see what was happening. As we got closer I could make out a bunch of ravens dwarfed by several soaring eagles. Some sort of carcass in a ravine at the base of one of the canyon’s cliff walls was drawing a crowd. I could see 2 adult Golden Eagles and, somewhat surprisingly as we were far from water, an adult Bald Eagle. Soon we saw 2 more eagles coming in from the south which turned out to be first year Goldens that flew right over us! I felt like we were back in the Pleistocene era when large mammal carcasses attracted large avian carrion eaters. As we dropped over the ridge into the Seco drainage, I closed my eyes and imagined a California Condor, which once patrolled this part of the world, swooping in to join the clean-up.