“It’s that time again”, said a friend of mine the other day. Our eyes barely met, but we knew exactly what the other meant.
Those of you who regularly read this column or those who attend our annual bevy of Christmas Bird Counts will also know exactly what we were talking about. It was the season for our annual Audubon Christmas Bird Counts once again. This meant hours and hours walking around the wintry countryside looking for and taking census of our winter birds. Still, this is something we have done for many years so much of it is second nature by now.
For those of you who are not familiar with the Christmas Bird Counts, here is a quick recap. The Christmas Bird Count is now over 100 years old, although most of our counts within the Carolinas have only been going for about 25 years. The first Christmas Bird Count was held in the northeast in 1900, and was a result of public response to the “side hunt”, a competition where the team that shot the most birds and animals on Christmas Day was the winner. Ornithologist Frank Chapman and other conservationists were disgusted by this slaughter and organized a bird count, rather than a bird shoot, and 27 people counted birds that year to start the now annual Christmas Bird Count.
From these small beginnings, the counts are now held in all 50 states, the Caribbean, Central and South America and the Pacific Islands, and over 45,000 people now participate in at least 1700 different counts.
Doing a mountain Christmas Bird Count can be somewhat enjoyable or just plain uninteresting, as everything depends on the weather or the food supply to the north of us. The colder and frostier it gets, the more ducks will appear on our lakes and reservoirs and should various seed and cone crops fail or be in short supply, the finches should push further south. (Well, that’s the theory anyway!)
There are Christmas Bird Counts scattered all over Western North Carolina. From the fields and woodlots of Cleveland and Polk Counties to the more-often-than-not birdless coves of Haywood County, and they all need to be covered. The lower elevation counts are usually the more interesting of the bunch with scattered open country species, such as Loggerhead Shrike, Northern Bobwhite and the chance for any of a group of unusual sparrows. In the mountains we have a better chance for winter finches, Red-breasted Nuthatch and a more reliable selection of forest birds. Lakes and reservoirs throughout the region can produce a good selection of waterfowl or they may produce nothing at all. The latter is probably what this season is going to produce. With higher than average winter temperatures and a warming trend almost up into Eastern Canada, there are bound to be no ducks this far south. This lack of waterfowl can often be compensated for by a few semi-tender birds over-wintering far to the north of their normal ranges. The usual suspects have included Gray Catbird, Palm and Orange-crowned Warblers, but “goodies” over the past few years have been Blue-headed Vireo, Common Yellowthroat and Grasshopper Sparrow. In short, one never knows what may be out there waiting to be found.
There are counts already planned for Buncombe, Cleveland, Polk, Haywood and Henderson Counties which is about the same number as last year and maybe even the same as the year before. After a while they do all run together. Notable birds and even their locations are remembered, but many of the other details are consigned to the regular dust pile of data. Yes, they are enjoyable, but all of these counts are very much the same as each other. Maybe next year I will go to the coast and count shorebirds or if the urge takes me, how about an Ecuador Christmas Bird Count? We did one once and it was anything but dull! But I probably say that every year and yes, I will be back and soon it will indeed be “that time again”.
And talking of help doing the counts, we are always looking for volunteers to come and join us. No experience is necessary as long as you enjoy being outdoors birding with other folks. Contact me for more information. v
Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 18 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. Birdventures.com.He co-owns and operate the Asheville Wild Birds Unlimited Store. For more information on birding activities in the area, check the store website at Asheville.wbu.com.