Warm, sunny day highlights Toppenish NWR Christmas Bird Count

On Saturday December 15th, 22 courageous birders ventured into the field for the Toppenish Christmas bird count. The weather was very pleasant; the sun shone down on us for much of the day, and the temperature got up into the mid 40s. This was certainly the warmest bird count I can remember being a part of, and I think this is reflected by the species we found and their numbers.

The most obvious correlation might be the number of Horned Larks we observed this year, our second lowest count ever with only 14 seen. Most years, larger numbers of larks are pushed into the valley by snowfall, of which we had none. Another species we had a low count of for the second consecutive year was Western Meadowlark, with only 6 seen this year. The cause for this low count is not so obvious to me.

We also had several high counts this year: Cackling Goose (107), Greater White-fronted Goose (26), Common Goldeneye (39), Hooded Merganser (9), California Scrub-Jay (3), and Yellow-rumped Warbler (181). Additionally, we had our second highest count of Red-winged Blackbirds, with 4,111. The high counts of waterfowl are likely due to the amount of open water afforded by the warm weather, as we had above average counts of most waterfowl species this year, with an interesting exception being swans. The Yellow-rumped Warbler high count may also be attributable to the warm weather, as these insect and fruit eating warblers might have been allowed to stay further north this year. As for the Scrub-Jays, this is certainly a continuation of their expansion into the valley, as they were noted on two separate routes, but for only the third time on the count.

We had a plethora of notable species this year. The continuing Black Phoebe along Lateral C Rd (15 months after this insect-eating bird was found!), 4 California Scrub-Jays and 8 Lesser Goldfinches along Marion Drain Rd were count firsts. Greater White-fronted Goose, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Greater Yellowlegs, Say’s Phoebe, American Tree Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and White-throated Sparrow were all noteworthy finds as well.

We had a few misses this year, but still managed to end up with an above-average total of 89 species, 90 when including count week species. It’s always great fun to look at birds with other enthusiastic bird-lovers, and this count was no exception. Thank you to all who participated, and thank you especially to Ron and Debie Brown for hosting the post-count dinner!

- Eric Heisey