The 38th Isabella Christmas Bird Count went better than organizer Steve Wilson expected.
"All the reports previous to the count, not just in the Isabella area, were bleak," Wilson said. "We had some people who spent an hour out there the week before who didn’t detect a single bird. Another person spent a couple of hours in the days before and she heard maybe one chickadee. But it turned out we had an above average number of species."
Wilson said 38 enthusiastic bird watchers tromped into the woods on Saturday, Jan. 4 to count as many species as they could see and hear. The watchers spotted 890 total individual birds divided into 24 different species throughout the day.
"We usually see around 1,060 birds and have an average number of 22 species, so we were quite close there," Wilson said. "That was probably the biggest surprise."
The counters also saw more blue jays this year than ever before. They marked 157 blue jays, beating the previous record of 130, Wilson said.
"Everybody was commenting beforehand how many blue jays they’ve been seeing at their feeders," Wilson said. "Normally they’re a feeder bird, but we were finding them out in the woods, far away from feeders."
Wilson noted the increase could be due to an eruptive year and is already looking forward to next year's count to see if the numbers remain, increase or fall off.
Another bird that saw an increase this year was the gray jay, or Canada jay. There's been a continent-wide decline in the number of gray jays since roughly 2003 due to changes in climate, he said.
"They do something that allows them to nest in the middle of winter," Wilson said. "They have special sticky saliva that they use to make these balls of food that they stash on the trunks of trees, under the bark. They stash up to 100,000 or more and remember where they are."
The problem, Wilson said, is that when winter starts later and temperatures run warmer, these little food caches end up rotting.
"So they don’t have the stored food they used to have when temperatures were colder in winter," he said.
This year counters noted 74 gray jays in the area. It's nearly half of the record number of 154.
"This was a pleasant surprise," Wilson said. "But it could also be a false positive since they also have eruptive years, so we'll have to wait until next year to see."
The last great surprise for Wilson was the appearance of nine cedar waxwings.
"That's only the second time in 30 years we've found that species," Wilson said. "They usually migrate south, but if they have suitable fruit trees, which around here are usually mountain ash trees, they can linger later into winter. And sure enough, the nine birds were sitting in a mountain ash tree."
The Isabella Christmas Bird Count is part of the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count, which celebrated its 120th year. People around the world participated in similar events from Dec. 14, 2019 through Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020.
Wilson credits enthusiastic volunteers and mild weather for the successful count.
"It was never below 21 degrees, never above 24 degrees and there wasn't much wind. You can't ask for much better than that, " he said.