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Archive for January, 2017

Counting the Birds

Christmas Bird Counts often start in the wee hours of the morning.  Nathan Gatto began searching for owls at Hobby Park at 4:00 AM.  Despite three hours of effort, he did not find any owls, but he did see an American Woodcock, the only one for the count.

Searching for owls at Reynolda. Photo by David Collins.

Searching for owls at Reynolda. Photo by David Collins.

Over at Reynolda, David Collins, a first-time Christmas Bird Count (CBC) participant, may have brought Jim Martin’s team a bit of “beginner’s luck.”  They started at 6:00 AM in the dark woods behind Reynolda House and soon heard the call of a Great Horned Owl.  Playing a recording of a Barred Owl call brought two owls into the trees above them calling loudly.  David was amazed.  And, hooked on birding, we hope.  Seasoned birders like to encourage new birders to participate in their first Christmas Bird Count.  It’s a bit like an initiation into the world of birding.

No screech owls answered repeated calls at Reynolda, but Brent Gearhart heard one at C.G. Hill Park.  This hit and miss birding is typical of CBCs and a big part of what makes them fun.  Birders love surprises.  It’s also the reason that we split up into teams, each covering a different area of our 15-mile diameter count circle.  This year we had fifty-four participants on twelve teams.

Emrys watching Peregrine Falcons on his first CBC. Photo by Kim Brand.

Emrys watching Peregrine Falcons on his first CBC. Photo by Kim Brand.

Another first-time CBC participant was Kim Brand’s young friend, six-year-old Emrys.  He and his mom, Mollye Maxner, joined Kim’s team mid-morning.  Earlier, Emrys had collected change to donate to the National Audubon Society and mailed it in.  By happy coincidence, his Audubon blanket (a thank-you gift) arrived while he was out birding on his first CBC!  The first birds that Emrys and Mollye saw on the CBC were a pair of Peregrine Falcons in downtown Winston-Salem.  They got great looks, and then went to Reynolds Park where they got good looks at a Barred Owl that was pointed out by people playing Pokémon Go.  Kim says that Emrys did not want to stop birding!  He was still hoping to see a Golden or Bald Eagle.

Northern Parula photographed by David Disher in early September.

Northern Parula photographed by David Disher in early September.

Kim’s team, led by Jeremy Reiskind, also had the most surprising bird of the count – a Northern Parula.  Doug Demarest and Kim spied a tiny bird in a Magnolia tree at the stone arch entrance to Washington Park.  It was hard for them to believe their eyes, but they got excellent looks at the little bird with a yellow upper chest, blue gray head and wings, white arcs above and below the eye, wing bars, green back, white belly and undertail coverts.  Northern Parulas are common here in spring, but, by December, most are in Florida, the Caribbean, or Central America.

Orange-crowned Wabler photographed by Nathan Gatto in 2015.

Orange-crowned Wabler photographed by Nathan Gatto in 2015.

Another very uncommon species in winter is Orange-crowned Warbler.  Heather Moir reports for the Miller Park team, “We moved on to Hathaway Park where the temperature seemed to drop, I swear I felt some snowflakes, but the bird activity picked up considerably.  There was so much activity in one area it was hard to know where to look.  “Phoebe” I heard Jane call out.  “There’s another Pine Warbler” I heard John say.  “Ruby-crowned Kinglet” from Laura.  Then – “I’ve got something different” from Craig McCleary, leader of the team.  The bird in question was just above eye level and we all got good looks at the Orange-crowned Warbler, calling out and confirming field marks (or, lack of field marks – this is a non-descript little bird!).  I was trying to get out my camera very quickly and quietly, but I wasn’t fast enough – our bird flew off to the top of a tree across the field.”

Heather continues, “Then it was on to the Children’s Home, where it was hard not to be distracted by the adorable miniature horses, goats, pigs, and one very curious llama.  Our birding highlight there was a flock of 125 Mourning Doves that we startled as we walked past a field.”

Miniature horse at The Children's Home. Photo by Heather Moir.

Miniature horse at The Children’s Home. Photo by Heather Moir.

This year’s Winston-Salem CBC set a record for species at 93 (with 13,016 individual birds), or four better than the record of 89 last year.  Yet several of us found it strangely quiet.  Heather reported that they had to work to find the Red-bellied Woodpeckers that typically seem to follow them through Miller Park.  I called Carol Gearhart at C.G. Hill Park mid-morning and she greeted me with, “Is it as dead there as it is here?”  Our team was thrilled when we finally had a flock of American Robins fly over at 3:00 PM, our first of the day.  But, Robins make it to the Top 10 list!  Again, evidence that the team approach to Christmas Bird Counts produces the best results.

Winston-Salem CBC compiler, Ron Morris, reports that the most numerous birds were:

  1. Ring-billed Gull – 5173
  2. Canada Goose – 728
  3. European Starling – 611
  4. American Robin – 579
  5. American Crow – 537
  6. Cedar Waxwing – 442
  7. White-throated Sparrow – 377
  8. Mallard – 328
  9. Mourning Dove – 314
  10. Rock Pigeon – 288
A Hermit Thrush at Reynolda, always a CBC favorite. Photo by David Collins.

A Hermit Thrush at Reynolda, always a CBC favorite. Photo by David Collins.

For a brief history of the Christmas Bird Count, see the Wikipedia article which begins as follows.

“Up through the 19th century, many North Americans participated in the tradition of Christmas “side hunts”, in which they competed at how many birds they could kill, regardless of whether they had any use for the carcasses and of whether the birds were beneficial, beautiful, or rare.  In December 1900, the U.S. ornithologist Frank Chapman, founder of Bird-Lore (which became Audubon magazine), proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them.”

For more in-depth information about the CBC, see the official Audubon Christmas Bird Count website.

Plan to join in the fun next year!  Whether it’s your first CBC or your 100th, you never know what you might find.

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“Guys… I’ve got some Broad-wings.  Above the Horizon…Near that white fluffy cloud.”  (White fluffy clouds covering 60% of the sky.)
“Oh Man!  Crap!”
“Guys… this is  looking good…”
“Guys…they’re starting to stream…OMG…Anybody else got them?  Oh my…. Guys…they should be viewable by eye now.”  (Birds still 10 miles out.)

Broad-winged Hawk. We did NOT get close views like this. Photo by Mike Stewart.

Broad-winged Hawk. We did NOT get close views like this. Photo by Mike Stewart.

It’s a slow year at the Pilot Mountain hawk watch when Scott “The Hubble” DePue has difficulty getting other spotters on the migrating birds.  Broad-winged Hawks comprise the majority of raptors observed during the hawk watch and this year counters tallied only 2,172.  Last year 5,654 Broad-wings were counted with 5,756 in 2014 and 6,057 in 2013.  Jean Chamberlain wanted to know “Where were the kettles?”

The tally board. Photo by Marty Hughes.

The tally board. Photo by Marty Hughes.

State Park Ranger Jesse Anderson was disappointed, too.  One day he exclaimed “I’m done with it! I got my fill for the year… I won’t be up there until next year.”  But the very next day he raced James Williams to Little Pinnacle overlook where the annual hawk watch takes place.

Hawks follow migration patterns, but they are not perfectly predictable.  And, certainly, the weather played a role this year.  During the peak stretch this fall, the mountain was fogged in every morning and only somewhat cleared in the afternoons.  Jean, who took over as compiler of the hawk watch after Phil Dickinson moved to Washington state last year, reported “We were ready, expecting to see many birds when the weather finally improved, but we were disappointed.  The kettles didn’t come.  It seems the birds hadn’t minded the dreary weather and came through when we couldn’t see them, or maybe they just flew around us.”  Another weather oddity this year was the unseasonable heat; some described it as downright hot.  And, there were almost NONE of the usual stink bugs…and nobody missed them.

All eyes on the sky.

All eyes on the sky.

While Broad-winged Hawk migration was much slower than usual, we had a good year for other species.  We saw more Osprey (60) and more Peregrine Falcons (20) than ever before.  They passed through steadily throughout the watch period from September 11 to October 5.  We saw a normal number of Bald Eagles (32), Merlins (6), Northern Harriers (6), and Kestrels (18).

But, this hawk watch is valuable for more than the raptors counted.  It may be one of the friendliest and most welcoming to visitors of any in the country.  Our Broad-wing numbers may have been low this year, but education was soaring.

Wandering Glider. Photo by Jay McGowan.

Wandering Glider. Photo by Jay McGowan.

Slow times for hawks gave Jesse the opportunity to have some fun teaching about and counting migratory dragonflies.  That’s right, dragonflies!  This year we added a new aspect to our hawk count and included counting numbers of four dragonfly species that are relatively easy to identify in flight.  Through the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership, hawk watchers can identify, count, and submit these numbers along with the daily hawk results.  Jesse’s favorite dragonfly to share with visitors and hawk watchers was the Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens).  This brightly colored large yellow skimmer is easy to identify in flight and it happens to have quite an interesting natural history.  The Wandering Glider is considered to be the most widespread dragonfly on the planet, and it exists on nearly every continent!  Also, it is the highest flying dragonfly, recorded at over 20,300 feet in the Himalaya!  So, next year, before the large kettles of Broad-winged Hawks start moving through, come test your binocular skills and help count our zipping dragonfly friends, too!

Jesse showing a group of girl scouts how to look for raptors.

Jesse showing a group of girl scouts how to look for raptors.

Jesse also led over 40 educational programs for more than 2,600 visitors including local and visiting boy scout and girl scout troops, 4-H clubs, school groups, and other visitors.  Jesse brought extra binoculars that were recently purchased by the park for visitor use.  They were a big hit with the crowd, especially with the kids, enabling everyone to join in the fun.  There could have been a future hawk counter infected with raptor fever due to his efforts.  A special kick-off event was held for Grandparents Day (September 10th /11th) when visitors of all ages, both the young and young-at-heart, could earn their badge as a Junior Ranger at Pilot Mountain.  Other programs included a live-raptor presentation from Jean (a Wildlife Rehab Inc. volunteer), Binocular-use 101, and Raptor Yoga.  Visitors were given introductions to raptor migration, identification of different species, and a brief conservation plug on easy ways we all can help.

Phil Dickinson, previous compiler for the count, was greatly missed this year, but Jean Chamberlain demonstrated excellent leadership and proved herself to be a worthy successor.  Jesse Anderson’s passion for all things that fly and his in-depth knowledge are taking education to new levels.  Volunteer hawk counters James Williams and Alan Firth contributed significantly by their presence on many days.  Thanks to these and all our other volunteer counters and visitors for making 2016 a memorable year.

Thanks to Jean Chamberlain, Jesse Anderson, and James Williams for their contributions to this story.

For a little history of the Pilot Mountain hawk watch, see Phil’s post Merlins Join Other Migrating Raptors at Pilot Mountain  And, if you want even more hawk watch stories, see Flights of Fancy at Pilot Mountain and Recapping the 2014 Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch.

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