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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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By Cynthia Donaldson

This may have been the rainiest Forsyth Audubon trip I have ever attended. The rain started as we traveled south on I-95 on Friday, January 15, heading toward Santee National Wildlife Refuge. By the time we all arrived, it was raining in earnest. The inside of the beautiful visitor center was a great place to enjoy our picnic lunches. Many were enjoying the covered deck and scoping the Bonaparte’s Gulls, Forster’s Terns, and Double-crested Cormorants that were flying around Lake Marion. Loons and grebes were floating about, not seeming to be bothered by the steady rain. By 1 o’clock, the rain had stopped and, according to the radar, the front had passed. We hiked the Wright’s Bluff Nature Trail though a quiet pine forest to the edge of the impoundments where the birds find refuge in the winter.

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From the observation tower, we enjoyed Wild Turkeys, Sandhill Cranes, Eastern Meadowlarks, Harrier and Cooper fly-bys, as well as Orange-crowned, Yellow-rumped, and Pine Warblers chattering behind us in the forest. Another quick rain shower divided the group: most headed back to their cars. The rest stayed for another hour watching the parade of ducks and passerines – just glad to be outside and not at the “office.” The rain continued off and on until evening.

Tony’s Famous Pizza chef served up some yummy pizza to our group; then we headed to the Hampton Inn at the Georgetown Marina to try to get a good night’s sleep before our greatly anticipated day at Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center.

This group is prompt. We pulled out of the hotel parking lot at 8:25 am on the dot on Saturday morning, drove the 10 miles to the end of the road at the Estherville Minim Creek and met Jamie Dozier, Wildlife Biologist and Project Leader for the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center.  Jamie was our wonderful tour guide for the day. He ferried us across the creek in a pontoon boat, depositing us on the other side at a nature lover’s paradise!  Jamie’s assistant was unable to come, so Howard volunteered to drive the other van. Those of us in his van survived to tell…

We were privileged to see, although in a somewhat dormant stage, a newly discovered species of Hedge-nettle named Stachys caroliniana. Here is a link about the plant: New Species of Hedge-Nettle Discovered in South Carolina.

Our lovely stroll through a Live Oak grove was memorable. These massive trees housing moss and ferns have withstood many storms over their one hundred years.

From here we came out into open at the impoundments where we enjoyed seeing 99 American Avocets!

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We always kept an eye looking up, because the clear, blue sky was full of surprises: Wood Stork, Black and Turkey Vultures, Bald Eagles, and a flock of White Pelicans delighted us by appearing over our heads.

Wood Stork in flight

The highlight of the morning was an adult Roseate Spoonbill flying overhead. It landed out of sight behind the wooded edge. The photo below is a juvenile that was in the same area. Several members of the group did the dance of joy for this long sought-after life bird. I heard someone say, “We can go home now.” In reality, none of us wanted this gorgeous day to end.

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After several hours exploring these impoundments, Jamie shuttled us back to the vans. We picnicked in the warm sun under some Live Oaks. With sandwich in one hand and binos in the other, we watched Harriers skim the marsh and we listened to American coots “cooting.”

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After lunch, we visited an impoundment where a huge alligator was napping with one eye on us.

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Our next destination took us through a long leaf pine forest. All the eastern woodpeckers can be found at Tom Yawkey. We almost scored a home run for Mr. Yawkey: we saw them all but the Hairy! The Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center hosts many colonies of the protected Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The Red-cockaded Woodpecker was a life bird for many.

The rest of the day was spent on yet another impoundment. Here, several saw Mottled Ducks to add to their life lists. A bobcat ran across an open field. He stopped at the edge and looked back at us before disappearing into the edge. A Marsh Wren trilled at us from his cover in the reeds. A small torpedo whizzed over our heads, changed elevation to a few inches above the trail ahead – traveling straight down the center, then veered sharply to the right into the marsh. Like a flash. Merlin.

The afternoon sighting-of-the-day was a little ventriloquist; we could hear him but could not find him…at first. He was so much closer that he sounded. In this photo you can see our group mesmerized by the sight of this little bird. Another life bird for most of us: Sedge Wren.

The only thing that could tear us away was the fact that our dinner reservations were at 6 PM. We tried to end the day with another Red-cockaded Woodpecker, but happily settled for a Red-headed.

Since the tide was in, Jamie drove the swing bridge into place and we walked across the creek back to our cars.

 

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Everything about this day had been perfect. Jamie was a very knowledgeable guide who patiently answered all our questions about this amazing refuge. The weather was warm and sunny. The people in our group were helpful and eager to teach. It was unanimous: we will return to the Tom Yawkey Nature Center! The sooner the better.

The dinner at Eddy Chacon’s was good. This restaurant was right beside the hotel so we walked over. Some of us stopped at the marsh behind the hotel on the way to see the Clapper Rails.

Sunday morning was cold, breezy, and rainy.  Here are a few words that I used to describe the group that went birding that morning: nutty, crazy, diehards, optimists. The rain let up around 1 pm when a few more joined the ranks at Huntington Beach State Park.  By then, it had improved to only cold and breezy. We hiked out the north beach trail to the jetty where we saw Least Sandpipers, Black Scoters, several hundred Dunlin, one Purple Sandpiper, and some very friendly Ruddy Turnstones.

Another interesting sight was a small flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls “pattering.” Their feet were barely touching the water as they hovered right above water along the jetty, plucking at unseen food from the tops of the waves. Ron told us that Storm Petrels feed in this same way. The name “petrel” is a diminutive form of “Peter,” a reference to Saint Peter; it was given to these birds because they sometimes appear to walk on the water.

The sun was lowering in the sky as we headed back to our cars. Most went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. Four of us remained to continue searching for at least one of the sparrows that live near the sea. No luck.

Our count dinner at Pasteria 811 was delicious. When we did the count down, we came up with 131 species for the trip!

A few more hours of birding on Monday morning helped us to add a few more birds to the list. Several birders stopped at a hammock shop at Pawley’s Island to see what they could find and spotted a female Painted Bunting. Around 10:30 am, we found (thanks to Frank Lawkins) the reported female Common Goldeneye at Mullet’s Pond at Huntington Beach State Park. Killdeer were also added to the list. A final count of 135 was fantastic!

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Even though we probably endured a few inches of rain and fairly low temperatures on two of the days, it was a great trip.  I agree with Heather; our memories of our Winter Trip 2016 will always make us nostalgic.

Photo credits: Gail & Ferd Crotte, Cynthia Donaldson, Gregg Donaldson, Heather Moir

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