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Count on loads of birds for Christmas

GOLD HILL — Just before bird-watchers Pepper Trail and Chris Uhtoff could slip their canoe through the icy shallows of the Rogue River's Kelly Slough, the fog-shrouded air above them began to reverberate in flight.

Hundreds, and later thousands, of American robins began bolting from their morning upriver roost in the slough's protective cottonwood canopy. Like a column of marching Roman soldiers, they passed over these mystified witnesses as the birds moved as one down the Rogue.

"It was almost like a flow, a current of birds," Trail says. "It was foggy, and they were darting in and out of the clouds. It was almost surreal."

Trail will return to Kelly Slough on Saturday to check for another December robin infestation as part of a century-old tradition in which people keep track of the birds around their burgs throughout North America.

Saturday will mark the 65th time the Rogue Valley Audubon Society has participated in the Christmas Bird Count.

This is the 108th year of the annual one-day counts, which will take place all over North America beginning Saturday and running through Jan. 5.

The Christmas Bird Count for the Mount Shasta area of Northern California is also Saturday. Birders in Yreka, Calif., will do their inventory Dec. 28.

About 50 volunteers in the Medford area will be broken into teams and assigned specific habitat to inventory, logging numbers of whatever bird species they spy. The survey is conducted within a 15-mile circle centered near the intersection of highways 62 and 140.

All of the bird count circles in the U.S. — more than 2,000 in all — are the same 15-mile size. The data compiled from each circle are placed on spreadsheets that go into a national database. The results vary each year, says Gwyneth Ragosine, who helps compile the results here.

"We can't seem to count on any one thing," Ragosine says. "I think the only guarantee we have is that we'll be cold."

Last year's Medford count was the highest local tally on record, with more than 75,000 birds from 132 species — including a first.

Three Eurasian collared doves spotted last year could be the first expansion into Oregon of the pigeon-like birds.

But the jaw-dropper of the count last year was the perpetual ribbon of robins witnessed by Trail and Uhtoff, from the Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland.

Seeing large wintering numbers of robins here is no strange feat. Along with year-long valley residents, the Rogue Valley often becomes a winter home for many thousands of robins migrating south from Alaska, usually reaching here around Halloween, says Trail, an ornithologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's National Forensic Laboratory in Ashland.

They tend to roost together at night, then take each other's lead as they set out each dawn in search of madrone berries, remnant fruit in picked-over orchards or other morsels in the region.

The Kelly Slough area of the Rogue upstream of Gold Ray Dam appears to be a favorite robin-roosting spot for a few reasons, Trail says. The slough's thick riparian zone makes for fine cover while the slough's water can act as a heater of sorts during freezing conditions because the water is warmer than the air.

Conditions during last year's count were perfect for the storm of robins Trail and Uhtoff experienced. The robin migration was big last year, and a pre-Christmas cold snap made roosting near in the slough like sleeping over a heating grate.

When the birds' internal breakfast bell rang, they began winging past the pair in immense formations.

Trail and Uhtoff spaced themselves apart and created aerial grids to log clusters of birds by the hundreds while minimizing any overlap in counts.

For close to an hour, they logged a conservative estimate of 50,000 birds before launching their canoe to resume the regular part of the annual count.

"If we had stayed another hour, we would have counted more," Trail says. "But we had to move on.

"It was remarkable," he says.

And it likely won't be repeated.

So far this winter, anecdotal information about robin formations are way down compared to last year, Trail says.

"I expect we won't be having a very exciting robin count this year," he says. "But you never know."

On the Net: www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/

American robins such as this one gather by the thousands in the Rogue Valley each winter. - Photo courtesy of USFWS