A blog of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

Surprises on the Christmas Bird Count

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Each year, hundreds of Oklahomans take to the woods, water and fields to tally birds for the Christmas Bird Count, our nation’s longest-running community science bird project. And while counts often yield exciting bird sightings, Wildlife Department biologist Mark Howery had three Christmas Bird Count surprises while surveying in and around the Ft. Gibson Wildlife Management Area's Waterfowl Refuge in northeastern Oklahoma on December 20, 2019. The Ft. Gibson Christmas Bird Count began in the 1953 - 1954 count year and has continued for 66 years.  

  • House Wren (out-of-season) "During the morning portion of the count, I watched a house wren for about three minutes from my vehicle; long enough to get a few photos for confirmation." House wrens typically leave Oklahoma in early winter and return in mid-spring.

Christmas Bird Count Status:  8th house wren ever seen on the Ft. Gibson count; 165th documented on any Oklahoma count

  • Say’s Phoebe (out-of-range) "Then, in the afternoon, I spotted a Say's phoebe near the entrance gate to the WMA. I was able to watch it for nearly 10 minutes and get photos as well." This bird is more common in the western United States, but does breed in the Oklahoma panhandle. 

Christmas Bird Count Status:  1st Say's phoebe ever seen on the Ft. Gibson count; 17th documented on any Oklahoma count

  • Tree Swallows (out-of-season) "The strangest bird of the day was a group of three tree swallows! They were flying over emergent vegetation in very shallow water and appeared to be foraging. They were too far away to photograph." When tree swallows can't find insects, they will eat poison ivy and honeysuckle berries, both of which are common on the WMA. Tree swallows tend to leave Oklahoma in late winter and return in early spring.

Christmas Bird Count Status:  2-4th tree swallows ever seen on the the Ft. Gibson Count; 7-9th documented on any Oklahoma count

“These surprise sightings suggest that we’ve had a mild winter so far.”

In addition to the unexpected wren, phoebe and swallows, Howery spotted 76 other bird species that have been added to the Ft. Gibson Christmas Bird Count tally.

“I was happy to see so many native sparrows,” Howery said. “I saw at least 10 species, including one LeConte’s sparrow and two Harris’s sparrows, both species of greatest conservation need.”

Oklahoma’s 22 Christmas Bird Count results are being finalized and will be posted at audubon.org.