Birder's Eye View

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Bird Count

It's another early morning for me! At 5am my alarm startles me out of a deep sleep and after downing a quick breakfast, I throw on my jacket and drive out into the cold darkness of pre-dawn for the annual Christmas Bird Count.

After meeting up with the other two birders in my group, we drive out to the access road marking the start of our 4.3 mile route -- the same route I did last year, and I'm hoping this time we won't be flooded up to our knees! The prospects don't look good however; the weather forecast calls for a wet cold front with rain and violent winds all day.

As it turns out, the terrible weather does make for difficult birding. It's still almost pitch dark as we pick our way down the trail, but there is not a single owl or whip-poor-will to be heard above the roaring wind. We take our time until the sun begins to rise and before we know it, hundreds of robins are erupting out of the palmettos.

The three of us are caught off guard suddenly when not one, nor two, nor three, but FIVE huge birds of prey fly towards us just over the tops of the pines. It's still dark outside so they are silhouetted against the dark blue sky, but they're definitely hawks of some kind. It makes no sense. Hawks never fly in groups of five!

None of us can figure out what they are in the few seconds they're visible through the clearing. From what I can tell, there is some kind of mottled coloration under the wings: a darkish head, and black/brown and white patches all over the underside. But it's still dark outside and impossible to know for sure. We are totally dumbfounded! It's frustrating, but after looking at all the "hawk" possibilities in Sibley's Guide, it gets light outside and we can't spend anymore time scrutinizing.

We trudge on ahead as the temperature drops and the wind picks up, tossing sprinkles of rain in our faces (why is the CBC always on the coldest, nastiest day of the year??). We count a few hundred more robins, and dozens of yellow-rumped warblers.

To our surprise, 2 of those mysterious hawks fly over again back from the direction they were flying before! One of them calls out, a short, high-pitched kind of cry, not like anything I've ever heard before. It was sort of  eagle-like, but not quite. They are only visible for a couple seconds, and audible only  for a fraction of a second. We still could never figure out what they were, despite seeing them so closely and even hearing the call. (If anyone has any suggestions of what kind of hawk might fly in groups and fly low in the trees, let me know!)

The rest of the hike goes surprisingly well, despite the conditions. We count more yellow-rumped and pine warblers, carolina wrens, downy woodpeckers, and even three ruby-crowned kinglets blowing around in the trees. A couple tufted titmice and blue-gray gnatcatchers are spotted as well.

My favorite find for the day shows up about two-thirds of the way through our route -- we have just gone through a relatively dead zone when out of the corner of my eye, I notice a woodpecker land at the top of a tall pine tree. I point it out, thinking it's a red-bellied woodpecker, a bird we haven't counted yet.

But no, its colors are all wrong through the binoculars! Dark patterned wings with a bright white stripe, yellowish-brown belly, striped head -- it has to be... a yellow-bellied sapsucker! There's no doubt about it. It's a lifer!

For the rest of the hike, most of the birds are about the same. We find a red-tailed hawk at the very end, flying in place against the gusty wind. After counting up the list, it appears we have a total of about 20 species, not counting the unidentifiable hawks. That's actually WAY better than I thought we would have, and only a few less species than we had for the same route last year.

It was a great CBC, once again, even with the uncooperative weather. Below is a list of the birds I could remember off the top of my head (I'll have to get the actual tally later).
  1. American Robin 
  2. Yellow-rumped Warbler 
  3. Downy Woodpecker 
  4. Tufted Titmouse
  5. Carolina Wren
  6. Black Vulture
  7. Turkey Vulture
  8. Red-tailed Hawk
  9. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
  10. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  11. Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  12. Laughing Gull
  13. American Crow
  14. Red-shouldered Hawk
  15. Pine Warbler
  16. Northern Cardinal
  17. White Ibis
  18. Hairy woodpecker
  19. (And a couple more I'm forgetting)

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