At Ashland's Christmas Bird Count next week, birdwatchers expect to find increasing numbers of birds able to winter and feed further north than ever before, because of climate change.
The annual Christmas Bird Count, to be held this year on Saturday, Jan. 4, is a popular and educational event open to both novice and seasoned birders, said organizers Harry Fuller and John Bullock, as they eyed feathered friends through a spotting scope at North Mountain Park, one of many sighting spots for the event.
The annual counts are held across North America between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. On one day, volunteers fan out to count all the birds they can find within a 15-mile circle. Medford's count was held on Dec. 14.
For the Ashland count, the circle is centered on Emigrant Lake. The spot was chosen to take in a variety of habitats, including the lake (for waterfowl), the entire city of Ashland, Keene Creek Reservoir on Highway 66 and Ashland Mine Road on the west end of Ashland. Volunteers will break into 11 teams to cover each type of area.
"On our Christmas Count, we've been finding eight species in the valley that weren't here 50 years ago," said Fuller. "Most of them are predators. They're moving north in winter to find the food they're used to."
Among the new wintertime species are red-shouldered hawks, white-tailed kites, black phoebes, Anna's hummingbirds, California towhees and mockingbirds. Seed-loving finches and sparrows are also able to push their range north and stay fat.
Volunteers will be "rank beginners on up to one birder who has done the count 60 times," Fuller said.
Birds are tallied by species and number, with results going to the Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, where they can be accessed by scientists and the public. The Cornell online guide has a database for each bird, as well as ranges, photos and sound clips.
Experienced birders will lead each small team, teaching others how to identify various species by appearance and call, said Bullock, adding that sometimes they'll see 2,000 robins and 500 Canada geese, which requires skillful guesstimating.
Cornell says the wintering grounds of some birds have shifted as much as 400 miles north. The counts have substantiated a large increase in robin numbers, said Fuller, and numbers of Eurasian collared doves are increasing. Turkey vultures have also greatly increased here because of urbanization; more highways means more road kill, he added, "kind of like a linear smorgasbord for them."
In decline are California quail, evening grosbeak and band-tailed pigeons, much of this due to loss of old-growth forests, he said.
High-mountain birds are having trouble because of global warming, with Clark's nutcrackers being crowded out by Steller's jays, and western bluebirds now being found above their habitual elevation — they're now seen in the Mount Ashland parking lot at 6,500 feet.
The counting event got its start in 1900 when the Audubon Society in New York proposed that counting replace the old tradition of seeing how many birds men could shoot on Christmas, said Bullock, while the women were inside cooking dinner.
Volunteers can sign up by calling Fuller at 541-488-8077 or Bullock at 541-488-7962. It is free. Bring your binoculars. Volunteers meet for dinner at Alex's at the end of the day.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.