Submitted by: John Gerwin, Treasurer, Wake Audubon; co-leader, Young Naturalists Club
I am writing this on Christmas Day, and I am staring into a cool fog drifting over the New River, thinking back on 2016. Recently, Wake Audubon hosted the Raleigh Christmas Bird Count. The day began with a chill, and cloud cover, and I was looking forward to a fine day of birding. In the past, cool and cloudy has usually brought us many more birds than warm with clear skies.
I took a small flock of Young Naturalists and some parents and other adults with me, to a section of Raleigh Greenway that begins at the Walnut Creek Wetland Center. Some of us met at 0545. I always begin my count day an hour before first light, to listen for owls. I never hear any but it’s a good excuse to drink coffee, eat some donuts and other Christmas goodies, and chat with whomever ventures out with me in that pre-dawn period. Two years ago, I thought I had heard the call of a Northern Saw-whet Owl in the privet bushes that are rampant behind the Wetland Center (and all along the Greenway). This owl species does roost in such hedges in the winter, especially in the coastal plain of NC. To be honest, we know very little about its occurrence in NC in the winter (most of what I know comes from salvaged specimens we’ve received at the Museum of Natural Sciences). We tried broadcasting Saw-whet calls from Emma’s smartphone (one of the Young Naturalist’s with me that year), to no avail. But, in the past, when I have used such playbacks to attract small owls, they seldom call back – if they respond, they approach silently – sometimes quite close!
I have worked closely with several of our Young Naturalists, both in the field and the Museum’s bird collections. Several of them have become proficient at catching/tagging birds (“bird banding”). Thus, given that these small owls generally respond by approaching quietly, I thought it would be fun to let them put up a couple nets, try some playback calls, and see what happens. Of course, it’s now years later but as the saying goes, you don’t know till you try.
We were joined by two new Young Naturalists and a few adults! Quite a party at 0600. Emma, Olivia and Vanessa and I put up 2 nets and began the playback – after 20 minutes, we also tried the other “normal” owls. We did not get any response from any owls. This is comforting in a way since, after many years of doing owl “surveys” and not having heard one owl, I have grown accustomed to the s-owl-nd of silence……. Not unlike those college football teams who have grown so accustomed to, and celebrate, their long losing streak. For me, the hot coffee on a cold morning with the donuts and great camaraderie yields priceless memories.
At 0700 we were joined by a few more folks and thus began our morning walk/count. In contrast to what I had anticipated, it turned out to be a fairly quiet morning with few birds overall. We did, however, encounter two mixed species flocks and those two alone boosted our numbers to “near-normal”. For the rest of the time it was a bit dull, so we’re grateful for those two flocks that kept us busy. In the second flock, Emma spotted a small songbird and asked “Could this be a Orange-crowned Warbler?”. That is a rare Christmas Count species and thus, always a great find. Fortunately, a number of us were able to find it in the flock that included many kinglets of both species! Along with a couple Pine Warblers – it could not have been a more challenging situation. But indeed, Emma was correct and there we enjoyed some good views of what would be our “best” bird of the morning. Last year, one of our other Young Naturalists, Olivia, had found this species. These two are the only two I’ve ever seen on the Raleigh Christmas bird count in all my years participating.
Although it was a bit slow for birds, we saw just enough and as always, enjoyed the company of each other. It’s a great way to get our new Young Naturalists introduced to the idea of a survey and, have time to go over the finer points of bird identification and natural history. We had 7 Young Nat’s (that I’m remembering, ha ha). We were delighted that one fellow from John Connor’s Neighborhood Ecology Corp program also joined us – a program that John conducts at the Wetland Center for residents in the southeast Raleigh area. I had help from a few adults, which I really appreciate, especially when we hit those mixed species flocks and birds are all around us. For the past few years I have integrated a “work break” midway through the morning, which includes a different hot choc-concoction that I invent each year. This year, due to the damp cold, we stopped a little earlier than “midway” and broke out the hot chocolate, cookies, brownies, etc.
As we enjoyed our snack break, one of our adult participants, Robert, spotted a Red-shouldered Hawk in large tree but in the open and just back from where we had come. The hawk was having a break of its own, munching away on something whose identity we could not ascertain. Another highlight included one of the more gorgeous Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot as I co-led a 3-year study of this species up in our higher mountains. This male had such intense colors – everyone commented on it. I was unable to get a photo – instead, I’ve included another lovely example from up along the Parkway. Note that the bird in the photo is fairly white underneath whereas our Xmas Count bird was very very yellow – more yellow than I’d ever seen.
Par for the course, White-throated Sparrow topped the list of most abundant on our walk. Although I am not a fan of the non-native privets in our area and all over Walnut Creek, I applaud the resilience of those lovely little sparrows. They seem to inhabit a bit of every woodsie habitat. Another common denizen of this area is the Red-bellied Woodpecker, and it’s one I can still hear from a fair distance, for which I am grateful. This year, we counted a few extra White-breasted Nuthatches, than in years past. It’s hard to explain any year to year variation but that is why we conduct this survey every year. Over time, scientists of various types can analyze these data, and discover patterns and sometimes come up with explanations. It’s a great way to contribute to the bigger picture.
We returned to the Wetland Center parking lot by noon, and there we added our final birds to the list along with more hot chocolate provided by staff at the Center. We really appreciate the help of the Wetland Center staff, for allowing us access to the bathrooms at 0700 (they normally open at 0900) and for coming along on our walk. We spent a fine morning watching birds, telling stories, looking back at 2016 and ahead to 2017.