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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
- Ring-billed Gull – 5173
- Canada Goose – 728
- European Starling – 611
- American Robin – 579
- American Crow – 537
- Cedar Waxwing – 442
- White-throated Sparrow – 377
- Mallard – 328
- Mourning Dove – 314
- Rock Pigeon – 288
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.