Authored by John A. Gerwin, Wake Audubon/Museum of Natural Sciences
This year’s count day brought some of the most oppressive weather, for conducting an outdoor activity! For the most part, it was a very cold drizzle – no amount of shivering under layers of clothing could get us warm. The banter along the path was often about getting back to a car, a bathroom, or “why didn’t I bring those chemical foot warmers?”…….. it required some effort to stay focused on birds, both figuratively and literally. We had to keep wiping off our binocular lenses every 10 minutes because the good news is, we kept seeing birds, constantly.
In spite of the rough weather, there were numerous highlights for those who participated. I led a small group along the Walnut Creek greenway, from 0700-1130. One of the highlights turned out, ironically, to be a weather event! For about 30 minutes (from around 0800-0830), we had snow. And it was a wonderful little snowfall. The flakes were big enough to really be snow. And they were soft. It was a really magical moment for those of us who love snow.
I hosted 4 Young Naturalists, and a couple adults. One of those adults, Ben Nickley, is a recent college grad and a new volunteer bird bander for us at Prairie Ridge. And, he’s an excellent birder. I cannot hear so well anymore, so it was great to have him along. Plus, he loves working with the public, of all ages, and so he had a fine time describing the various birds sounds to the young naturalist girls along.
The Young Nat’s who came out were: Emma Little (15), Olivia and Vanessa Merritt (almost 17), and Abigail Coleman (13). They kept up a great spirit of birding, in spite of the challenging weather conditions. Indeed, it was an amazing ‘bird’ morning for us in that each of them found a really good bird, and all within about 30 minutes at one location. I found another, which made for 4 species for which these were the only reports for the entire count (pending a few more incoming reports). Two other Young Nat’s, Mia and Mya Velasco, came for an hour or so. One was nursing a cold and it was very brave of her to try and tough it out but in the end, the damp chill was just too much. Wisely, Mom took them home to watch birds through the windows at the feeders.
One of our very first Young Naturalist’s was on the count this year, but now as a co-leader. Kyle Kittelberger has been involved with birding, and Wake Audubon, for a decade or so (like some of the others above, he began at an early age). It’s wonderful to see this “return on investment”. Kyle, along with Brian Bockhahn, took kayaks and paddled Swift Creek from Old Stage Road to the upper marshes of Lake Benson. Now, as you can imagine, this affords some sightings of things most folks are simply not going to see otherwise. They got a high count for Wood Duck, and a few neat birds that are the only reports thus far for the count: Herring Gull, Am. Woodcock, Horned Grebe, and Am. Coot. They also had Fish Crow, one of only two reports (we had the others at Walnut Creek). Again, it’s wonderful to see the youngsters coming out and being involved, and then return to take the lead for an area.
Now, for the Walnut Creek gang…….. first, fairly early on, Abigail spotted a sleek shape zipping overhead while we were all looking another direction. Fortunately she got us on it quickly – it was moving east fast. But Ben and I got the binos on it and could readily tell it was a male Merlin. We hardly ever see this species on this bird count. 20 minutes later, I spotted some blackbirds fly up alongside the State Street bridge. Walnut Creek count area is THE place where we consistently get Rusty Blackbird, so we are always on the lookout. The lighting was terrible, but we were able to re-position and indeed confirm that these were 5 Rusty Blackbirds. But, they quickly flew off; very frustrating as not everyone got a very good look at them. And we did not see any more the rest of the morning.
One rather amazing sight that took us to the bridge in the first place, was ~60 Eastern Bluebirds! I’ve seen small flocks of bluebirds, but never this many in one tree. They descended into a large bunch of Climbing Euonymus to gorge on the fruits, and some of the Privet fruits just below. Both of these plants are non-native and highly invasive but bear a fruit that some of these birds really like. Thus, the seeds are spread and unfortunately the Walnut Creek area has some of the highest densities of these two plants I’ve ever seen in Wake County. Waxwings and robins were also chowing down, and just below, some Hermit thrushes. Then, the bluebirds bolted and I hollered “Must be a hawk!” Within seconds, one of the gang spotted an incoming Sharp-shinned Hawk, which landed right in front of us, at eye level! It was just across the street and as it sat there for a few minutes, we got great looks and I got a few decent shots.
After this hawk departed, without a meal, Olivia spotted a small songbird below us in the shrubs within the powerline right of way. She commented “It’s an odd-looking one, like some warbler”. Indeed it was on both accounts. It was an Orange-crowned Warbler, my first in Wake County. It was a really nice plumage, where even the gray seemed vibrant. As it was right below us, we all got great looks. It was a bummer for me when it flew too far away before I could get my camera out.
So, at and near the bridge, we found several species that are almost never seen on this bird count: the Merlin, Sharpy, Rusty’s, and Orange-crowned Warbler. The Sharpy, as a rare bird, is a fairly recent phenomenon. I’ve not read any definitive reasons for why it has become as rare as it has. But in our area, reports have dropped off a lot over the past decade or so.
Then about 30 minutes later as we continued east along the greenway, Emma heard a strange sound that she alerted us to, feeling it was a Gray Catbird. We harassed that sound for 20 minutes, with playback and trying to penetrate a privet hedge that, in the end, was nearly impossible to penetrate. We never did find the bird but it did call a few more times, and Ben and I heard it well enough to agree it was a Catbird. During the lunchtime overview, it was the only Catbird for the count. And this is another species that we don’t always get. And then the day after the count, I got a note from a woman over behind Whole Foods that a Catbird was coming to her suet feeder and she saw it on Saturday. And, she’d had one last year on the bird count so we counted it that year as well! She may have had the only one in 2013. Interestingly, where Emma found the Walnut Creek Catbird is the same spot I found one (and managed to see it), in 2012. We now know that many birds have a very strong sense of “place”. Other studies have shown that indeed these are the same individuals that return again and again to the same spots, be it a breeding territory, migratory stopover site, or “home for the holidays”.
At the end of the day, our groups had found 93 species, and it’s likely that a few more will be reported over the next week or so. A hearty thanks to all who persevered the very uncomfortable weather to make this a really interesting count for the species found. And a huge thanks to Wake Audubon board member John Connors for once again coordinating the group leader/participant assignments.