The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

January 7, 2012

Snowy owl spotted during New Year’s Eve bird count

Some 20 years ago, Marc Hanneman traveled to the arctic breeding grounds of the snowy owl to conduct field studies. It turned out to be a bad breeding year for the owls, and Hanneman returned home without having laid eyes on one snowy owl.

That all changed on New Year’s Eve. Hanneman saw his snowy owl, not in the arctic, but at the Kinder Morgan dock in Ashtabula Harbor.

“It was the first one I’d every seen in my life,” says Hanneman, president of the Sam Wharram Nature Club and compiler for the Ashtabula Christmas Bird Count. “I’m pretty excited about it.”

Hanneman spotted his owl during the bird count that was conducted Dec. 31. The 12 birders fanned out across byways, the lake shore, meadows and woodlands in the northeast corner of the county in search of birds both common and rare. When all the numbers were crunched, the birders had spotted 59 species on count day.

Weather put a damper on the activities, and Hanneman suspects it also had something to do with the lower count numbers. The onshore winds were 10 to 25 mph, there was a light rain with temperatures in the low 40s. The lake was free of ice, and duck hunters were active around several of the areas where the counters do their work.

“I think that most notably, the waterfowl species were down,” Hanneman said.

The unseasonably mild weather also may account for why backyard bird enthusiasts are not seeing as many songbirds at their feeders this winter.

“I think it’s more weather than anything else,” Hanneman said. “The more snow and cold you have, the more activity there will be. We’ve not seen a lot of winter songbirds, like the red-breasted nuthatch or the redpolls (a finch).”

The Christmas Bird Count is a National Audubon Society tradition that started as the conservationist’s response to the popular Christmas side hunt — “sportsmen” would take to the field with their guns and see who could bring in the largest pile of feather and furred quarry. Ornithologist Frank Chapman thus suggested the Christmas Bird Census; the first one was held Dec. 25, 1900, at 25 locations.

The count has become the largest running citizen science survey in the world. The data collected by the volunteers provides researchers with an 112-year perspective of population change. Compilers log onto the Audubon website and enter the data for their area, a circle 15 miles in diameter. In the case of the Ashtabula County, the epicenter is just east of Kingsville.

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