Photo by Larry Master, www.masterimages.org
A varied thrush is seen in Rainbow Lake during the annual Christmas bird count in January.
 
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The annual Christmas bird count put on by the Audubon Society occurred as usual this year, but even though it's been going on for decades locally, there were a few unusual birds spotted when the count took place in January.

The bird count is one of the largest citizen science efforts in the world. For 116 years, everyday folks have set out into the wild to record and report each and every bird seen in the 15-mile-radius observation area.

This year, local bird whisperer Larry Master was again at the helm of the observation effort. The bird count records every individual bird seen in a 24-hour period. And due to the late onset of winter, the bird count, which took place on Jan. 3 this year, was host to a couple of surprises.

Master said that this year's count contained the highest number of individual species recorded in the 60-year history of the local count. Fifty-one species were counted, along with more than 7,600 individual birds. The number of birds counted was more than 2,000 higher than the previous record. With the addition of five species that had never been counted here before, Master said that the total number of species recorded in the history of the local bird count now stands at exactly 100.

It wasn't just a record year for birds though. More than 50 people volunteered to participate this year, nearly 20 more than last year.

Master said that the five new species aren't unusual for the area, just for the time of year. Loons, cormorants, mockingbirds, merlins and white-crowned sparrows have typically migrated out of the area by the time the bird count comes around, but the amount of ice and snow that the North Country received was lower than normal.

Nina Schoch, who is regarded as the Adirondack loon expert, said that some loons stayed on Lake Champlain all winter.

But of real interest here are two species that typically aren't seen in the area at all, let alone during the bird count, which can take place any time in late December or January.

In Rainbow Lake, a varied thrush was spotted, and a Townsend's solitaire was spotted at the Paul Smith's College Visitor Interpretive Center. Both of these birds were seen just outside of the official observation circle, and so weren't counted. But Master said that both species are western birds that for some reason ended up coming east.

The Audubon Society's website says that varied thrushes are native to the Pacific Northwest, but can sometimes surprise birders by straying to the east coast for the winter.

The Townsend's solitaire earned it's name by spending the winter also in the Pacific Northwest, literally flying solo most of the time. Individuals will stake out a winter territory that can provide them with berries. This bird can stray into the Midwest while migrating, but the Adirondacks is definitely outside it's normal range.

Both species like habitat that is similar to the Adirondacks, including areas around streams and in conifer forests.

For more information on the Christmas bird count or it's related event the Great Backyard bird count, visit www.audubon.org.