The Christmas Bird Count season ended January 5th. But wait – there’s one more!

This past weekend, at personal request, several teams of some 15-20 birders helped Alan Contreras test a new CBC circle he is considering proposing to National Audubon. Just to the southeast of the very old Eugene circle, this new one is centered about 1.5 miles southeast of the town of Jasper on the Willamette River, and extends from the eastern suburbs of Springfield in the NW to Dexter reservoir in the SE.

Anyone can start a CBC circle, joining the more than 2600 circles that contribute to the database of early winter bird records. Last year, 23 new counts were held across the country (and another 17 elsewhere). But there are rules, and it takes time to get a circle officially approved. Your new circle can’t overlap with existing ones, for example. You have to show that you’ll be able to guarantee a certain number of participants in the reasonable future and will carry out the duties of compiler as well. And you obviously have to know the entire circle well enough to be able to create team sectors and make sure the circle has enough interesting habitats and bird species to make it worthwhile for everyone. These are the reasons it makes sense to a hold a trial count in a proposed circle, and to avoid conflicting with established circles, having it outside the official CBC window of December 14 to January 5 makes sense. A trial run might discover an incredible bit of habitat that lies just outside the circle, in which case the circle can be adjusted before it becomes official. Alan probably hopes that this year’s participants will offer critical pointers on how well the proposed sector boundaries worked and what changes might work better.

Here’s a summary of my day with my mostly bad photos, as winter light in Oregon isn’t the best for distant and backlit birds. But at least it documents what I’ve been up to.

My area was the southeastern-most sector, including all but the uppermost stretches of Dexter Reservoir and about a half-mile of the Middle Fork Willamette downstream from the dam. I also had the little town of Dexter and all the side roads south of it to the circle boundary. A state park right at the dam was a good place to start. Some of the best access to riparian habitats is below the dam, but the deep water right above the dam is usually bird-free. The maintained lawns where I parked had a flock of about 7 flickers, and at least two among them were Red-shafted x Yellow-shafted intergrade males. The abundance of such intergrades in western Oregon in winter is a good sign that it’s not likely they’ll ever be split.

I hiked about a quarter mile below the dam to find five Barrow’s Goldeneyes in the swift current but well away from the hypernitrogenous zone immediately below the spillway. I also had an Osprey here, scarce in the winter this far north.

The shallower, upper half of Dexter Reservoir is home to hundreds of wintering American Coots, and I counted 2020 total. (I probably missed a few.) Mixed in with them are many scaup of both species, Ring-necked Duck, and Bufflehead with a very few Ruddy Ducks and Canvasback.

One task for this sector is to carefully scope through these flocks for rare ducks and check the open water for unusual grebes, loons, or other water birds. I found no rare ducks (a Tufted or Redhead would be good), but this Red-necked Grebe was possibly the rarest bird in my area, with maybe four previous winter records for the reservoir, but I actually found it while scouting here last week. It’s always good to have stakeouts.

Eared Grebe was new find by me during the day, but it’s not quite as rare as the Red-necked. It was very distant and a small bird, so the photos are barely useful to document it. (Horned Grebe is rather similar and far more common here.)

This Western Gull was also an unexpected bird inland, as they rarely leave the coast, even in winter. A little black smudge by the red spot on its bill tells me that it may not be 100% mature, perhaps in its 4th winter, and that might explain grayish grizzling on the head and breast. However, this latter feature might mean that it has some Glaucous-winged Gull in its heritage, though the dark back and black (not just dark gray) wingtips indicate that it’s not an F1 hybrid.

I was pleased to learn that the entire northern shore of the reservoir upstream from the town of Lowell is open public access, and most of it is good habitat. English Ivy is a bad invasive exotic here that should be removed, however. I was exploring right near the edge of the circle when I hiked to the edge of the water and took this photo looking NE, upstream. The foreground marsh and near water is in the circle while the line of trees directly over the first patch of water is outside. Amazingly, all of those rafts of ducks and coots were well within the circle, while the uppermost piece of the reservoir and short outflow from the very close Lookout Point Reservoir are apparently not of much interest to birds.

Yet another rare bird at this spot was this Mountain Chickadee, my second one this winter out of range. There have been only three others found in western Oregon and Washington this winter, which is about average, nothing like the big irruption of 2015-16 when there were dozens.

After I was back in the car and finishing up my eBird list, I looked out and saw a flock of large birds overhead. I jumped out and was amazed to see these 12 swans flying high in a southeasterly direction. They were clearly headed towards the Willamette Pass of the Cascades, and the from there, I’d guess to either to the Summer Lake Wildlife Area or the Klamath Basin wildlife refuges. My photos seem to show a more slender bill indicating Tundra Swan, but from what we know about swan migratory patterns here, these can be safely assumed to be that species.

If you read my last blog, from the Eugene CBC, you’ll remember I had four Trumpeter Swans in flight on January 3, headed south. At the Zoom meeting we held for this new CBC, we learned that Tom Mickel, who covered the limited-access Willamette Confluence Preserve of The Nature Conservancy, had 16 swans: Four Trumpeters and 12 Tundras, and he actually saw the Tundra Swans pick up and fly away off to the SE. I’ve never been to that preserve, but I’ve seen the swans that like to use it!

Near the end of the afternoon I did a bit of exploring around the town of Lowell where I was hoping to find some access to the former oak savannah habitat now growing over to thickets of younger Oregon White Oak and in places showing the inevitable succession to Douglas-fir forest. The powerline right-of-way north of the town turns out to be Seneca Jones Timber Company property with public access, at least on foot, and it goes right through this habitat. I had some very nice mixed flocks of kinglets, chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, Hutton’s Vireo, and woodpeckers here.

Keep an eye out for the announcement of this new CBC circle for the 2021-22 season!