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Before the age of the Internet, we would straggle in oblivious to each other’s finds. Indeed, half the fun was the unveiling of the best species during the tally after every count supper.

December 28, 1969: ‘Twas a clear day, low of 22, high of 31. Eight intrepid souls, led by the late John Orr, ventured into the woods and fields of Sinking Valley for the first ever Christmas Bird Count in the recently established Culp circle. After 24 hours of team effort, the counters tallied 32 species. That year was the 70th annual CBC nationwide; it would take the Culp count all the way to year #123, on December 17, 2022, to reach 72 species. Along the way, effort, species numbers, and weather have had their ups and downs, but enthusiasm has never flagged. In celebration of surpassing the long-sought 70-species goal, we present a brief history of the Culp Count.

My family, up in Plummer’s Hollow, first got involved in CBC #79, in 1978. I was nine years old. Since then, I participate every year I am in town. In my family, it is safe to say, Christmas Bird Count is bigger than Christmas!

In those early years, the count supper, as we called it, was strictly potluck, at the old Sinking Valley Grange. Before the age of the Internet, we would straggle in oblivious to each other’s finds. Indeed, half the fun was the unveiling of the best species during the tally after every count supper. If you had something good, you kept mum until then. Nowadays, via a Whatsapp group chat, we announce the top finds as we get them.

Back in the day, many frustrations resulted from lack of a good photograph. After all, it was going to take you quite a while to get the film developed, and telephoto lenses were scarce. Now, of course, we share photos instantly. And we have eBird. And Merlin. And so forth—but the spirit of the thing hasn’t changed, even if potluck count suppers are long forgotten, and we meet in the private room of a local restaurant. We still swap war stories (of the birding variety) and do a read-out tally of every species.

It does look like hi-tech has helped us get to 70 species, though. How else would we have known that this year’s putative Yellow-rumped Warbler was actually, on closer examination of digital evidence, a Cape May Warbler? How else to keep track of who is getting what, and thus refocus and calibrate team efforts during the course of the day?

Effort—number of total hours logged by teams—doesn’t necessarily correlate to number of species. In 1993, 138.5 hours were spent for a total of only 50 species. Compare that to 2012, where only six counters, the smallest group ever, spent 40 hours but got 58 species. The most counters, 45, were in 1983, but they only logged 56 species.

These small songbirds are often counted at feeders if shrubs and other cover are nearby. L to R: White-throated sparrow, Black-capped Chickadee, Dark-eyed Junco, House Finch. Photo by Mike Jackson

The weather of course is a huge factor. Birds that remain in central Pennsylvania in late December move around quite a lot: waterfowl, particularly. They have to, as their waterholes freeze over and they head to bigger lakes or rivers outside the count circle. What about holding it later, after Christmas? Wouldn’t we get more winter species? This tactic has never worked for Culp. The first five counts were all after Christmas, but otherwise, only Jan 2, ’93; Dec. 27, ’97; and Jan. 3, ‘17 have been later; in none of these have species been higher. Mid-December works best!

Now for the suffering. One can reliably predict most of the species that will be gotten, but the weather conditions? Never! Our coldest count ever was December 16, 1989: a low of 0 and a high of only 14.

At the other end of the spectrum, just five years earlier, December 15, 1984, the low was 46 degrees and the high reached 66!

As for the birds themselves, over the years, Culp has gotten a total of 121 species on count day, and another three only on count week (the three days before and after). Some of these, like this year’s Savannah Sparrow and Cape May Warbler, have been gotten only once. Others, like this year’s Lapland Longspur and Golden Eagle, and many more, have been recorded only a handful of times. Then there are the frustrating misses: when the tallier reads out an expected species and no one raises their hand. No Red-breasted Nuthatches??? How can that be?!?!

At least, there are those old dependables, the ones you get on every count. We have 15 species in that category. If you live in the area, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the most common of these is the European Starling. It’s had some low years, but never less than 100, and the most-ever of a single species was 2,160 in 2016.

Of course, there are a lot of other trends of interest. Ruffed Grouse, PA’s state bird, used to be easy to locate, with a count high of 31 in 1988. A few are still in the area, but we haven’t gotten any on count day since 2016. You can thank the West Nile Virus for that population crash. On the other side of things, we didn’t get the first Bald Eagle until 2002, but now we get up to five every year. Raptors in general have remained stable or gone up in numbers, with the sad exception of the Northern Goshawk, which has vanished from the area and indeed from most of the state.

December 17, 2022: So, what WAS this year’s magic formula for hitting 72? I can honestly say we have schemed and plotted and scouted for several counts in the past. In the mid 2010s, I put together a Google Map of the count circle with every accessible road and birding spot highlighted and applied a technique I had seen in other count circles: drawing birding zones so that we could match teams to areas and avoid overlap and missed opportunities. Still, we couldn’t top the record of 67 species set in back-to-back years (’07/’08).

Then came all the bird identification tech and just the right combination of motivated (some would say obsessed) counters, just waiting for perfect weather conditions. Here are some choice snippets from the group chat:

John Carter, 4:53 AM: “Good morning and happy Culp CBC day! Hope you all have fun and see lots of birds! Thank you for being part of the count. On the board with a Screech Owl.”

John again at 7:21 AM: “Grackle!”

Me at 7:30 AM: “5 male common mergs”

Michael Kensinger at 7:31 AM: “50 Red-winged Blackbirds”

And on it went. People hit the best spots in the morning, cognizant of looming snow showers in the afternoon, and a general lull in bird activity. At around 9:30 AM, we began to wonder about waterfowl.

John: “Any update from Canoe Lake, Jacksons? Hoping there is some open H20 there.” Nothing to report. But a few minutes later, John clocked in with a Green-winged Teal and Laura Jackson reported 3 Northern Pintails.

The adventure continued. Michael Kensinger at 10:01 AM: “100 Horned Larks being hunted by an immature Sharpie.”

Carl Engstrom at 10:33 AM: “Good stuff – kestrels and Bald Eagle if those haven’t been recorded yet.”

At 10:55 AM, John reminded folks to keep their eyes on the sky in case of Golden Eagles; Carl delivered one at 12:36 PM. Sign of the times: a Red-headed Woodpecker returned after a 24-year absence (Michael Kensinger reported from Ft. Roberdeau).

At 11:39 AM, I messaged John: “Looks like we are headed for an all-time high. Easily break 70.” This was after my Savannah Sparrow, hanging with some Northern Cardinals at the edge of our field. But the kicker, or so we thought, was Carl’s 2:06 PM Lapland Longspur. After that, as it usually does, numbers of new species dropped off and heavy snow showers kicked in. I had already walked eight miles and decided to scrap a final push for Ruffed Grouse in the thickest, thorniest, invasive thickets of Brush Mountain. No Barred Owl was to be found, no Red-breasted Nuthatch; no one had gotten a Merlin or a Rusty Blackbird, either: granted, not easy or common species, but when your totals are already high, as all birders know, you tend to get a little greedy. John announced he was headed to Sinking Valley in the fading light to make a try for a possible Short-eared Owl reported by Michael Kensinger, but no luck.

And then it was over. I joked that had the total been 69 species, folks were invited to scrabble through two miles of icy slush to make a try for the Plummer’s Hollow Barred Owl. Owling, as it’s called, is about the only option left if you want to make use of the 5 hours remaining in the count. But we stayed with Great-horned Owl and Eastern Screech-Owl and went home happy (some prepping for another CBC somewhere else the next day).

The biggest surprise for this CBC was the Cape May Warbler on a feeder in Sinking Valley! Photo by Joe Glass

How many bird species were in the Culp Circle on December 17, 2022? The surprises weren’t over yet. A Peregrine Falcon sailed over my head in Tyrone the next morning, hunting Rock Pigeons, but I doubt it had been there the day before. Nevertheless, it became a count week bird, or “cw.” Though several feeder counters didn’t turn in new species, Michael delivered the biggest surprise of the season when announced on the evening of the 18th that his team’s Yellow-rumped Warbler was a Cape May Warbler, with a photo to back them up. This was only the 9th-ever of this species for Pennsylvania in December and the second from central PA.

Due to the icy conditions, most ponds were frozen, but a few had open water that attracted ducks and other waterfowl. This Northern Pintail was a handsome duck among the many Mallards at a small pond in Sinking Valley. Photo by Joe Glass

For more of Mark's birding adventures, check out his Bird Mountain newsletter.

The JVAS Blair County Christmas Bird Count (CBC), centered on Culp, will be held on Saturday, December 16, 2017 with a Tally Dinner (aka “tally rally”) to be held at The Dream Restaurant.

cartoon of Christmas-y birds with stockings

The JVAS Blair County Christmas Bird Count (CBC), centered on Culp, will be held on Saturday, December 16, 2017 with a Tally Dinner (aka “tally rally”) to be held at The Dream Restaurant, starting at 5 P.M. The pay-your-own dinner is open to all, so you can attend even if you can’t help with the CBC. The Dream is located at 1500 Allegheny St., Hollidaysburg, PA.

Please contact Christmas Bird Count Coordinator Laura Jackson no later than Saturday, Dec. 9 to reserve your place at the Tally Dinner. Call 814-652-9268 or email [email protected]

We hope YOU will be a counter this year! We are always in need of more participants, so check with birder friends and invite them to participate, too. Participation is free. In addition to field surveys, we need feeder watchers. If you live in the count circle (within 7.5 miles of Culp), you are encouraged to record the birds you see on your property or at your feeder.

Counters will be assigned a section of the circle to cover, so if you have a favorite area, be sure to sign up early. Register by calling Laura Jackson. You will receive a map showing which part of the circle to cover, a species checklist, and pointers on any bird hot spots that might be in your part of the circle. We will assign the count areas in early December, so if you have a favorite area that you want to cover, contact Laura before December 10.

Also, we hope you will attend the Sunday, Dec. 3 Pre-CBC Workshop to help us organize the event. We will meet at 2:00 pm in Penn State Altoona's Hawthorn Building. Call Laura if you plan to attend.

There are 3 other Christmas Bird Counts in our area that need participants:
Huntingdon Co. CBC is centered on Donation, PA.
Contact compiler Deb Grove: 814-643-3295 or [email protected]
Bedford Co. CBC on Saturday, December 30, is centered on Manns Choice, PA.
Contact compilers Mike and Laura Jackson: 814-652-9268 or [email protected]
Raystown CBC: Contact compiler Greg Grove for more details: [email protected]

Birders converged on the Culp Christmas Bird Count Circle in Blair County on a cold and windy December 19, 2015 to participate in the 47th Christmas Bird Count (CBC) sponsored by Juniata Valley Audubon Society, under the direction of National Audubon.
Tufted Titmouse
Many song birds, such as this Tufted Titmouse, prefer black oil sunflowers. These seeds are high in fat, providing much-needed energy during the winter.

Birders converged on the Culp Christmas Bird Count Circle in Blair County on a cold and windy December 19, 2015 to participate in the 47th Christmas Bird Count (CBC) sponsored by Juniata Valley Audubon Society, under the direction of National Audubon. The first CBC ever was in 1900 - an alternative activity to count birds ALIVE, since prior to 1900 the tools of choice were not binoculars, but were guns, with participants competing to see how many birds they could KILL.

Some key counters were sorely missed as they could not participate this year due to illness, but the 18 people who did participate on December 19 counted a total of 5,082 birds, representing 67 different species. JVAS President and CBC Compiler Laura Jackson would like to thank the following counters who braved a cold and windy day: Susan Braun, Michael David, JP Dibert, Carl Engstrom, Kurt Engstrom, Stephanie Gallagher, Debra Grim, Charlie Hoyer, Mike Jackson, Kristin Joivell, George Mahon, Stephen Martynuska, Ian McGregor, John Orr, Mark Shields, and Jody Wallace. JVAS VP Mark Bonta helped to organize the counters and contributed the sighting of a Horned Grebe that was recorded as a “count week bird,” making 68 the total number of species recorded during the count week.

Mild fall weather meant that there was plenty of open water, but waterfowl were surprisingly scarce. Canoe Lake is a good location to observe waterfowl, but no Canada geese were to be found. Observers did find 10 Buffleheads, one Common Goldeneye, seven Hooded Mergansers, and one Common Merganser, as well as a few Mallards, at Canoe Lake. Elsewhere in the count circle, 143 Canada Geese were found, just two Wood Ducks, one American Black Duck, and over 200 Mallards. Fortunately, the 10 American Coots spotted at Canoe Lake were alive - last year approximately 12 were found dead floating in the lake. The reason for their death remains a mystery.

Bald eagle in flight
Counters spotted 5 Bald Eagles this year - a record high for the Culp CBC Circle; Bald Eagles were rarely seen during the Christmas Bird Count until recently. Reintroduction efforts by the Pennsylvania Game Commission are so successful that Bald Eagles are actually nesting in Blair County.

It was a good day for raptors: 5 Bald Eagles and 1 Golden Eagle were counted, as well as 1 Merlin, 3 Northern Harriers, 7 American Kestrels, 4 Sharp-shinned Hawks, and 6 Cooper’s Hawks. As expected, Red-tailed Hawks were the most common - 28 were found. The highlight of the raptor survey was finding a Northern Goshawk. Sinking Valley, with its broad vistas and farm fields, is a good habitat for birds of prey, as well as for the gallinaceous birds like Wild turkey (48), Ring-necked Pheasant (16), and some exotic Chukar (7) - a partridge native to Eurasia that has been introduced as a game bird. Sadly, our state bird, the Ruffed Grouse, is in decline, and only one was found. Another species that frequents Sinking Valley in the winter is the Horned Lark - 70 were counted.

All species of woodpeckers were observed, except the Red-headed Woodpecker; European Starlings are responsible for their absence. In fact, the Starling was the most common species counted in the circle, with observers reporting a total of 1,714 birds. Brown-headed Cowbirds were the second most common bird with 550 reported. A few Red-winged Blackbirds (8) and just one rusty Blackbird were found in some of the Cowbird flocks.

Many common “winter birds” were seen: Winter Wrens (2), Golden-crowned Kinglets (16), American Tree Sparrows (40), Dark-eyed Juncos (265), White-throated Sparrows (120), Purple Finches (7) and a few Pine Siskins (7), to name a few.

The relatively mild winter meant that many birds which might be scarce during cold winters were still in abundance: 53 Eastern Bluebirds, 50 American Robins, 7 Northern Mockingbirds, and 24 Killdeer.

Observers at feeders and along wooded trails also reported good numbers of our common backyard birds: 76 Black-capped Chickadees, 81 Tufted Titmouse, 50 White-breasted Nuthatches, and 7 Carolina Wrens.

It is a challenge to thoroughly cover the count circle, centered at Culp - a crossroads in Sinking Valley. The circle is 15 miles in diameter, so the effort includes observations while driving the roads, hiking the fields and forests, or counting birds at backyard feeders. This year, 18 birders counted throughout the day, from dawn to dark - and even after dark for owls, for a cumulative effort of 75 hours looking for birds.

The Culp CBC is usually held the Saturday before Christmas, so if you might like to participate next year, call JVAS President Laura Jackson (814-652-9268) and get your name added to the list of potential participants. If you live in the count circle, you could count birds at your feeder. Otherwise, expect to spend part of a day on an exciting adventure exploring parts of Blair County.

A Christmas Bird Count Dinner was held immediately following the count when most of the birders enjoyed an evening at Marzoni’s - after a great meal each group reported their findings at the “tally rally.” A good day was had by all!

A complete list of all the bird species counted for the Culp CBC can be found on the National Audubon website.

Please let me know what area you plan to cover for the CBC. We will have a planning meeting at The Dream Restaurant on Dec. 6th at 5:15 pm to assign areas. If we don't hear from you before then, we won't know what area you want to bird.

Here is the link to an interactive circle for our CBC on Dec. 19th. Search Culp, PA and you'll see our circle with Tyrone Twp near the center. Zoom in and out to see details, as well as other CBC circles. You can also change the maps, which is a cool feature.

Please let me know what area you plan to cover for the CBC. We will have a planning meeting at The Dream Restaurant on Dec. 6th at 5:15 pm to assign areas. If we don't hear from you before then, we won't know what area you want to bird. We can meet there for free as long as people buy dinner. Ask for the meeting room under Laura Jackson's reservation.

Also, we will have the tally rally dinner at Marzoni's on Dec. 19th. Reservations need to be sent no later than Dec. 11 and cost $20.00. See more details in the last issue of The Gnatcatcher. Send your check payable to JVAS to Laura Jackson 8621 Black Valley Road, Everett, PA 15537. We encourage you to attend, even if you can't help with the CBC.

Reservation and payment are due by Tuesday, Nov. 18 if you'd like to join us for the Christmas Bird Count supper on December 20. We'll be meeting at 5:30 at Marzoni's Brick Oven & Brewing Co. at Pinecroft.

Marzoni's logoReservation and payment are due by Tuesday, Nov. 18 if you'd like to join us for the Christmas Bird Count supper on December 20. We'll be meeting at 5:30 at Marzoni's Brick Oven & Brewing Co. at Pinecroft, 1830 E. Pleasant Valley Blvd, Altoona. (Here's a map.)

You don't have to participate in the count to join us for dinner!

The meal will be buffet style with three delicious Italian entrées from the Banquet Menu:

  • Eggplant Parmigiana (Meatless)
  • Beef Tips Marsala with mashed potatoes and vegetables
  • Chicken Alfredo

Also included:

  • Fresh Garden Salad
  • Unlimited Bread Sticks
  • Soft drinks, Juice, Coffee, and Tea (Free Refills)

Marzoni's own, hand-crafted beer is available at an additional cost.

Only $18 per person (includes gratuity). Make check payable to Laura Jackson and mail to:
8621 Black Valley Road
Everett, PA 15537
or pay at the Nov. 18 JVAS program meeting.

For more information on the Christmas Bird Count, see the event description, and be sure to read CBC compiler Steve Bonta's article on the front page of the Gnatcatcher.