Christmas Bird Count tracks winter birds in Pocahontas County

Fifteen volunteers woke up early on Sunday morning Dec. 14 to spend the day outside counting birds across Pocahontas County.

The Audubon Society sponsors the Christmas Bird Count nationally. Locally, the Pocahontas Nature Club and Pocahontas Convention and Visitors Bureau helped to organize the event that started at 7:30 a.m. in Mill Point and didn’t end until well after sunset to capture numbers for night-time owl species.

Richard Bailey, ornithologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, said this is the 115th Christmas Bird Count, which turned up some interested results this year.

“Believe it or not, this is the first year that we topped 60 species. We found, preliminarily speaking, we found 61 species for this count,” Bailey said.

Bailey is still waiting on complete data for the final bird count.

“We seemed to not pick up a lot of a very common bird called the dark eyed junco, relative to other years that we’ve counted them. We counted well over 100 juncos in the circle but usually it’s about twice that. On the other end of things, we have an incredibly rare bird, probably the state’s rarest breeding grassland songbird, and wintering. It’s a bird called a loggerhead shrike. It used to be much more common in the Greenbrier Valley. It’s a farm friendly bird, but the way that farming is done these days has changed, and we actually found two shrikes this count, which is unusual and a cause for some joy.

“One of our next steps actually at DNR might be to trap and to put color bands on that bird so that we can monitor its movement a little more closely,” Bailey said.

A species of duck, Common Merganser, is becoming more common in the state. There also were a few Chipping Sparrows in the area that had not yet flown south for the winter.

“It’s literally shown up in the state in the last 20 years or so. We went from no Common Merganser in the state in the summer and extremely few in winter to they’re breeding across a broad section of the state and they’re increasingly being seen on the Christmas Bird County. So this is the first year that we found a Common Merganser at the bridge in Marlinton, so that’s just sort of sign that they’re increasing,” Bailey said.

“We found some birds that are typically really scarce here in the wintertime but sometimes will linger around. There’s a bird called the Eastern Phoebe. We found a couple Phoebes on the count. It seems that common Ravens are continuing to increase, the large black bird of the mountains that we so love here in Pocahontas County,” Bailey said.

“The same goes, there’s another common sparrow called the Chipping Sparrow, that’s really common in folks yards in the county during the breeding season, but during the winter most of them head south, but we always have a few that linger, and we found a couple of Chipping Sparrows on this count as well.”

It is impossible to discern if climate change is affecting the numbers for this year’s bird count. This year’s data will be compiled to generate long-term trends that may show changes to bird species in the area as a result of the climate.

“I would say that climate change in certainly happening. Evidence is continuing to mount with that. It’s difficult to talk about climate change though in the context of any given single year. It might be that as the years go by and we continue to do these counts, 20 years from now we might look at the data that we acquired this year and say, ‘ok this combined with all the others, we’re starting to see a clearer trend,’ where some birds that used to really not spend the winter at all in Pocahontas County, now we’re seeing more and more of them, and other species that are more likely to spend the winter farther north, example being perhaps the purple finch, we’re seeing fewer and fewer of those.

“It’s complicated, that’s how I would describe it, but when you have a large enough sample size, when you have enough years of data, you can start to look at these trends and start to pull things out, and they are indeed doing that at Audubon and at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and other places, and they’re doing some really interesting modeling that’s really trying to get to the heart of it, and the data that we are collecting is feeding into that. A great deal of evidence is starting to get on board that’s basically saying that bird species are shifting their ranges, and we are seeing evidence of it, you just have to look across a lot of data,” Bailey said.

Story By

Kelly Taber

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