Come Saturday Mary Huey of Willoughby will marshal a covey of like-minded birders for an annual bird-tallying event that stretches back more than a century.
The Burrough’s Nature Club participants will be engaged in the National Audubon Society’s 111th annual Christmas Bird Count. They have set aside for themselves a swath of western Lake County.
Meanwhile, other groups - such as the Blackbrook Audubon Society - will view and record bird sightings at different locations in Lake County and also on Sunday.
The entire program is sponsored by the National Audubon Society and is held nationwide from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 each year.
Every participant is assigned a certain territory and designated to locate places to key in on as well as record findings and sightings.
Huey’s job is to coordinate activities with the group assembling at Lake Metroparks’ Gully Brook Park on the Willoughby-Willoughby Hills line.
“This is the first year we’ve surveyed that area in some time so I’m not sure what we’ll find,” said Huey, who has participated in the count since the early 1960s.
Previous outings have spied many common wintering birds such as tufted titmice, cardinals and bluejays.
“We hope to see some owls and kingfishers, and we would really like to have an eagle fly over us,” Huey said.
Huey says the groups tend to average small in size; numbering maybe a dozen or so participants.
“After about an hour we break off into smaller groups of two or three people,” Huey said. “If you do see something unusual it’s good to have someone else around to verify the sighting.”
Some of Huey’s more noteworthy sightings included identifying a cowbird - normally long gone by winter - as well as a mockingbird, which likewise had no business hanging around Northeast Ohio during the Christmas season.
“And I remember once seeing some snow buntings around the old Willoughby landfill,” Huey said. “That was pretty exciting. And we’re still seeing some migration, especially with ducks and geese.”
Among the count’s frequent participants and excellent birders is John Pogacnik, John, Lake Metroparks’ biologist.
“I do but not around here,” Pogacnik said. “I participate in the Lake Erie Island area count, which I organized about 25 years ago.”
Pogacnik said that because of the warming influence of Lake Erie the weather tends to be more mild and thus often allows seeing species less commonly encountered in Northeast Ohio such as the hermit thrush as well as bald eagles.
“You get some really neat stuff, which is one of the reason I put it together,” Pogacnik said.
High on Pogachik’s count list are buffleheads, a type of diving duck. Where once a count of around 100 birds was tallied now the total is up to 2,000 or more birds, he said.
“I think that’s because of the proliferation of the zebra mussel which the bufflehead like to eat,” Pogacnik said,
However, one bird species Pogacnik said he rarely sees around the islands is the common tufted titmouse, which doesn’t like to cross large expenses of open water.
“And we very seldom see pigeons anymore, either,” Pogacnik said. “Whether they like
the big city habitat or what I just don’t know.”
Asked to note the difference between the Christmas bird count and February’s Great Backyard Bird Count, Huey said the former has a much richer history and is more technical in its execution.
“The Christmas count has been going on a lot longer and also does more field counting of birds and less bird feeder counting; which we do too but not as much,”
Huey said who noted that by noon most every counter is tuckered out and ready to gather to mull over the findings.
“We usually have the tally done by then so we can stop and eat lunch somewhere in downtown Willoughby,” Huey said.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn