Robins regain highest perch in chilly Medford bird count

Native robins returned to top billing by supplanting the non-native and not-so-sterling starlings in Medford's version of the Christmas Bird Count, whose volunteer counters and their quarry themselves were burdened by bitter cold.

Thanks largely to an estimated 43,800 robins flying out of the Rogue River's former Kelly Slough area at dawn, the total of 50,362 robins counted Saturday made it the dominant species in the annual count, organizers say.

Though down the past two years, the robin count was more similar to past counts there and it easily eclipsed the 16,091 starlings counted during the daylong exercise.

Organizers expected this year's count to be dominated by starlings, as it was last year, when tens of thousands of starlings flew into the Kelly Slough area at dusk.

That massive migration, which includes starlings flying in deft precision, is called a murmuration. But this year, it was more like a murmur.

"The big murmuration didn't occur, or at least it wasn't observed," says Eagle Point birder Bob Hunter, the coordinator of the Medford count. "Maybe we just missed them."

In all, 59 "citizen scientists" tallied 85,093 birds among 119 species, with both numbers down during a day when thick fog and freezing temperatures hampered birds and birders alike.

"Visibility was very difficult, so we didn't get the numbers and species we normally get," Hunter says. "Plus, the birds were really hunkered down because of the weather."

This was Medford's part of the 114th annual series of counts nationwide. The national event started Saturday and continues through Jan. 5. Ashland's Christmas Bird Count is slated for Jan. 4.

The thousands of surveys across the country take place within "count circles" that are focused on specific areas and organized by a count compiler.

The circles cover a 7.5-mile radius from a specific centerpoint. In Medford, ground zero is the intersection of Highways 62 and 140 — a point that's been used to center this count since it began in 1953.

The numbers are compiled and shared nationally for a snapshot of what birds are present and visible on count day. The long-term data set can help show trends in abundance and distribution of species.

This year's count saw a drop in red-tailed hawks from 224 last year to 129, something Hunter chalked up to the weather and visibility.

One of the big surprises of the count was a saw-whet owl spotted in the Antelope Creek drainage by Medford's Russ Namitz, the reigning Oregon record holder for spotting the most intrastate species in one calendar year.

Saw-whet owls aren't particularly rare, but this very small owl frequents Douglas fir stands that aren't very prevalent in Medford's bird-count circle, Hunter says.

Conspicuously absent were pine siskens, Hunter says. Last year's count tallied 146 of these little finches known for their incessant wheezy chatter.

"This year we didn't see a single one," Hunter says. "I think that was one of the biggest surprise misses."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at

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