Starlings of the slough

Starlings, hawks and owls among birds to watch during Saturday's Christmas Bird Count
A murmuration of starlings stream over the Rogue River near Lower Table Rock at dusk Monday. Mail Tribune / Jamie LuschJamie Lusch

Bob Hunter parks his car on the shoulder of Kirtland Road, then gingerly steps through the snow and ice to find a bare spot where he can stand and watch the avian ballet about to unfold in the skies above.

Against a backdrop of a setting sun behind the Table Rocks, thousands of black dots stream through the orange light.

If you go

The Medford Christmas Bird Count is set for Saturday. For those who wish to participate, call CBC coordinator Bob Hunter at 541-826-5569 or email him at bobhunter@embarqmail.com.

The Ashland Christmas Bird Count is set for Jan. 4. John Bullock and Harry Fuller are the count's co-coordinators. To participate, contact Fuller at anzatowhee@yahoo.com or 541-488-8077, or contact Bullock at jas@opendoor.com or 541-488-7962.

"It's starting to happen," says Hunter, of Eagle Point.

Soon ribbons of starlings flying in almost unbelievable synchronization move en masse from Medford to their evening roosting grounds along the Rogue River along what used to be Kelly Slough.

"They all key on each other as they form these interesting, moving patterns," Hunter says.

Too bad they're starlings, the non-native bird bane that has overtaken North America and now are taking over Medford's annual Christmas Bird Count thanks largely to the recent discovery of this evening phenomenon over Kirtland Road.

Starlings have always had a great presence in the Medford count even before the mass flight began a few years ago. But the 50,000 estimated to take part in the aerial show at dusk during last year's count accounted for more than half the total birds tallied last year.

"Now, thanks to this fly-in, starlings will likely dominate the counts forever," Hunter says.

That domination is expected to resume Saturday during the Medford version of the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, the 114th annual exercise in "citizen science" in which amateur birders count all the birds in a given area on a given day from sunrise to sunset.

The national event starts Saturday and continues through Sunday, Jan. 5. Ashland's Christmas Bird Count is slated for Saturday Jan. 4.

They are two of thousands of surveys across the country that take place within "count circles" that center on specific areas and are 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 data are compiled and shared nationally, providing 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.

Some of the interesting local trends involve hawks and owls that over-winter in the Rogue Valley.

The valley has long been a prime spot for red-tailed hawks, but ferruginous hawks and red-shouldered hawks are showing up in the counts.

Three ferruginous hawks were counted in 2011 and one last year, Medford CBC data shows. Last year's count of 22 red-shouldered hawks was the highest ever in the Medford circle.

"They're breeding more and more in Southwest Oregon," Hunter says. "They used to be rare, but now they're quite common."


But ground-nesting owls, particularly the burrowing owl, have seen their counts plummet as their useful habitat has diminished on the valley floor, Hunter says. Everything from farmland development to pasture disturbances have made the valley a rough place to be a burrowing owl — to a point where none have been counted during the CBC here since 2006, Hunter says.

Since the removal of Gold Ray Dam from the Rogue River in 2010, which drained Kelly Slough, the roosting robin population has dropped markedly. Last year Pepper Trail and Chris Uhtoff, who count the slough's birds during each CBC, counted 10,000 robins during the count. They counted as many as 50,000 robins there before the dam was removed.

For years, robins dominated counts at the slough, largely because Trail and Uhtoff positioned themselves on the downstream part of the slough to capture the robins as they bolted westward.

The starlings fly southeast toward Medford.

"It's possible they were there in previous years, but we weren't there to count them," Trail says.

Come Saturday, they'll position themselves along Kirtland Road to estimate how many starlings are in those pulsating ribbons headed to the former slough area.

Birders used to theorize that the slough was popular among roosting birds because its stagnant waters warmed the cottonwoods where they roosted. But the water's now gone, and the birds still return nightly during winter.

This "thermal cover" hypothesis doesn't seem to be holding up anymore, Trail says. So the most likely reason for the slough area's continued popularity is that it is an isolated area largely free of disturbances, allowing the birds to roost longer without getting spooked, he says.

Studies show that "disturbance flights" can sap as much as 13 percent more energy for every 30 minutes of flying than time spent resting, and those energy savings likely are even more significant in winter when birds' energy budgets are tighter, Trail says.

The birds seem to spend their days feeding in the Medford area before staging and flying collectively into the slough area in formations called murmurations, which would be more entrancing if starlings weren't so discouraging to birders and others who prefer all things native.

Starlings are an invasive species that have swept across the continent in murmuration after murmuration. They are the bane of grain farmers and vintners, and they can out-compete native species for food and space — particularly cavity-nesting birds.

Their presence is not considered a good thing by wildlife-integrity biologists who favor native species — regardless of how breathtaking their maneuvers can be.

"Still, it's quite a spectacle to see so many birds, regardless of whether they are native or not," Hunter says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman



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