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Return of the pine siskins

Among all the jeeps, shrieks, coos and caws during last year's Christmas Bird Count, conspicuously absent was the incessant incessant wheezy chatter normally heard everywhere from backyard bird feeders to Ponderosa pine stands.

None of the 59 citizen scientists taking part in Medford's contribution to the national bird tally last Dec. 19 spied a single pine siskin.

The year before, 149 pine siskins reared their conical-beaked heads within the Medford count circle. But last year they were AWOL.

"Several of us were thinking, 'Wow. We need to get at least one siskin to get it on the list,' " says John Alexander, executive director of the Medford-based Klamath Bird Observatory and a CBC volunteer.

Alexander and others of his birding ilk will be on the lookout for pine siskins and as more than 120 other species of birds Saturday when Medford's armchair ornithologists take part in the 61st version of Medford's Christmas Bird Count.

This marks the 115th consecutive year that the National Audubon Society has organized its 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 began Sunday and continues through Sunday, Jan. 5.

Medford's count is Saturday. Ashland's Christmas Bird Count is slated for Saturday Jan. 3.

They are two of thousands of surveys across the country that take place within "count circles" that center on specific areas.

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.

Various participants are assigned chunks of that circle by the count compiler, who makes a list of the pre-Christmas tallies and checks them twice before sharing those numbers nationally.

Individually and collectively, the counts provide local, regional and national snapshots 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.

For instance, the Audubon Society earlier this year used CBC counts and North American Breeding Survey records and matched them up with specific species' ideal habitats and projected greenhouse gas emission impacts to map the winners and losers of long-term climate change.

The results from computer modeling indicated that 126 “climate endangered” species will lose more than half of their range by 2050 and another 188 “climate threatened” birds will do the same by 2080.

Locally, robins and non-native starlings have taken turns atop the Medford tally.

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 recent counts.

Also, ground-nesting owls, particularly the burrowing owl, have seen their counts plummet as their useful habitat has diminished on the valley floor.

But that doesn't explain why pine siskins ended up on birders' milk cartons in 2013 -- not just here, but apparently across Oregon.

The brown birds with pale lower bodies and streaky feathers are a winter finch common across Canada and Alaska, with Southwest Oregon near the bottom of its range. They get their name because they breed in open conifer forestlands, particularly northern pine, but they will frequent wooded urban neighiborhoods, parks and cemeteries.

Siskin numbers statewide started tailing off in September and stayed very low well into spring, according to the data compiled at ebird.org. Locally, it wasn't until August that siskins started to show a rebound.

The reasons aren't exactly clear, Alexander says.

However, as being "irruptive" migrants, migration patterns of these 4-inch finches can vary dramatically year to year. Also, the flock-flying siskins are susceptible to disease that can easily wipe through local populations.

"They're one of the reasons it's important to keep backyard feeders clean," Alexander says.

 In August, birdfeeder-watchers began noticing the siskins locally and flocks have been spotted throughout the Rogue Valley.

They've been around so far this year," says Bob Hunter, an Eagle Point birder in charge of the Medford count. "I've seen at least two huge flocks.

"Of course, we don't know for sure if we'll have them for this year's counts," Hunter says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Deb Harder shot this photo of a Pine Siskin in her backyard in Medford in 2010.