Intuitively, one would think birds migrate out of the mountains and into warmer climates for the winter and indeed, some do, but there are dozens of species of birds that over-winter at Lake Tahoe.
Prove it to yourself by joining the upcoming Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society and hosted locally by Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS).
For an avid or amateur birder, it is exciting to spot species we haven’t seen before and that’s virtually a guarantee when you head out into the field with one of the experts from TINS. Typically, participants in this count tally between 60 and 75 different species of bird in one day, a veritable feast.
This year’s count takes place on Monday, December 14. Participants will meet at Alpina Coffee Café in South Lake Tahoe at 8 a.m. The entire group will head out to Cove East and observe together for an hour or two before splitting into smaller groups to cover more of the area which is comprised of a circle 15 miles in diameter.
The group will be watching for the birds most likely to be around in the winter including numerous species of waterfowl, such as the snow goose, tundra swan, ring-necked duck and hooded merganser. We will be on the lookout for the red-tailed hawk and the bald eagle.
If we are lucky, the colorful and striking cedar waxwing will put in an appearance and perhaps a stocky finch—the red crossbill—will be spotted. The red crossbill might even be breeding during the winter, if it can find an abundant supply of pine cone seeds to feed upon.
At the end of the day, the group will reconvene for a pizza party to celebrate the day’s achievements and tally up the sightings.
What a great excuse to get outside, celebrating the life around Lake Tahoe and hobnobbing with other people who love birds.
Interested parties can find more information and sign up on the TINS website, tinsweb.org/cbc.
One North Shore birder, Franny Bryan, has been busily conducting a winter bird count in her own back yard and has observed some birds she has not seen before so close to home, including the varied thrush.
The varied thrush is similar in size to an American robin with bold orange, black and slate markings. This bird breeds in Alaska, Canada, Washington and Oregon in the summer, migrating south along the Pacific Coast for the winter.
He eats insects during the summer months, switching to berries and seeds in the winter, which has attracted him to Franny’s selection of seeds and crumbs she puts out on her deck during the day.
Franny has found this male varied thrush to be quite shy—he flies away as soon as he sees her watching him. Nevertheless, she was able to capture a few photos through the glass.
She hasn’t heard him sing but the varied thrush belts out a prolonged throaty whistle, which fades out at the end. Birds mainly sing during breeding season to attract mates and to lay claim to territory.
Franny has been using the Merlin Bird ID app, a free app available from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at merlin.allaboutbirds.org. Using the app, she was able to identify a female red-winged blackbird that paid a visit to her banquet of seeds, much to her delight, especially since the red-winged blackbird and the varied thrush are not birds we typically see in our area in the winter.
I suspect these two were passing through on their way to an easier climate. Franny was happy to host them while they were here and assist them on their journey with a few high-energy seeds and nuts. Franny takes care to put out just enough for the day so as not to attract bears at night.
A bird which can be found over-wintering in the Lake Tahoe area is the bald eagle and a chance to be part of a group of professionals watching for these majestic birds is coming up in January. TINS also hosts the local Bald Eagle Survey which is coordinated nationally by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Last year I was out with the group at Sand Harbor. Perhaps 15 minutes into our search, one of the members spotted a bald eagle, high up in a tree, watching us. It was an awe-inspiring experience and I would recommend it to anyone interested in birding, wildlife and conservation. Details and sign up info on the TINS web site.