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Fall Birding Counts

September 21, 2009
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Every birder is pretty familiar with the concept of a Christmas Bird Count.  The idea to go out and count every single bird you see in a given area is a great way to spice up your birding (although eBird has got me doing something like that every time I go out these days), and getting together with other birders to thoroughly survey an area adds to the excitement.  But we’ve always done them in winter, which for much of the country is a fine time of year to find birds but one that often lacks both the diversity and numbers you could potentially find in other seasons.  So why are Fall and Spring bird counts so unusual?  The birds are more abundant, the numbers of resident species are augmented by migrants, and you never know what you might turn up if the winds are right.  All of it occurs in the 15 mile radius you’d use for a CBC, and in many ways, migration counts can be even more fun than the counts they piggy-back on.

So this past weekend my dad and I were given the Ebenezer Point Recreation Area on the shores of Jordan Lake in the annual Chatham County Fall Bird Count.  Ebenezer, with its commanding view of the heart of Jordan Lake,  is the access point of choice in the Jordan Lake CBC.  Great birds have always been found on the water here.  But mid-September is still too early for numbers of waterfowl and Gulls, so lakewatching is not particularly productive.  In fact, aside from the Killdeer and herons on the shoreline and the occasional Bald Eagle flyby, there was little to be gained from close study of the water.  But the boat launch area may well have netted us the count highs of Black Vultures with all the birds we found roosting on the dead branches of a tree, their waiting for the sun an exercise in futility on a gray cloudy morning.

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There were hardly the only Vultures we’d come across.  In fact, when we began to explore the picnic areas we found the reason the Vultures were so numerous.  Trash cans, most of them filled with old lunches and poorly secured.  Out west they may worry about bears getting into garbage, but out here the Black Vultures can be vicious.

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Vultures notwithstanding, it was in these picnic areas that we had out best birds.  The arms of the lake function as migrant traps, similar to, but on a much smaller scale, as the famous Point Pelee in Ontario.  Jordan Lake is far from a huge reservoir, but it’s big enough that little birds tend to avoid crossing it unless they have to.  Because of that, the birds tends to bunch up in the trees at the very tip of these small peninsulas and you can come across lots of species in good numbers.  We found at least two large groups of migrating birds where we found the lion’s share of our passerines.

The core of both flocks were Pine Warblers, of which we had nearly 60 total, but searching through them turned up such fall delights as Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Oriole, and lots of warblers including Blackburnian, Yellow-throated, Black-throated Blue, Hooded, Redstarts and Parula.  The last stop even had Pine Warblers feeding on the ground like sparrows.  No amount of searching through them would turn up a real prize like Blackpoll or Bay-breasted, both would be pretty rare in this part of the state.  Incidentally, one of the best parts about having a birding partner, as my dad is while he’s here, is the proliferation of “action” shots, by which of course I mean photos of me birding.  Birding, feel the excitement!

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I kid, but at this point I was pretty excited about all the warblers hanging around.  So if you can’t get a sense of that from this photo, I don’t know what to tell you.

In the end we had 45 species, not a bad morning for 3 hours in the fall and honestly, probably far more than we’d have on a CBC in the same spot.  Fall Bird Counts are lots of fun, I’m surprised they aren’t more widely done.  Have any of you participated in a Fall Count?  If not, maybe you should start one.

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3 Comments
  1. September 21, 2009 7:44 am

    Oh, someone has finally found the lower half of his birding uniform.

    🙂

    I’d say “nice post” if it wasn’t for all those Black Vultures, a species I have never seen and thus decline to accept as really existing. Again, as I have mentioned here so often, it is fun to compare your assessment of relative warbler rarity to the conditions around the Great Lakes, where e.g. Baypolls can be so numerous in fall that they cause economic damage in the forests by weighing down and breaking the trees they roost in. Single Yellow-throated Warblers on the other hand, or more than a handful of Pines a day, would be seen in an entirely different light.
    I suppose those pines were a bit too old to fit the needs of a migrating Kirtland’s? Oh, but they all hung out around NW Ohio, as I’ve heard, so it’s no wonder you didn’t get any. They could however be headed your way, so GOOD LUCK!

  2. Nate permalink*
    September 21, 2009 9:52 am

    @Jochen- You can go to the mountains in the western part of the state and find trees crawling with Bay-breasted Warblers. But they seem to prefer to follow the Appalachians and rarely show up much farther east. It’s kind of amazing the fidelity those bird show to their migration routes. I don’t know if they do any fall counts out west, but if they did it wouldn’t surprise me if Bay-breasted was one of the most numerous species. On the other hand, I suspect there’s no more than 2 or 3 found in the whole count area out here.

  3. September 21, 2009 3:47 pm

    I’ve never done a fall or spring count. I think there was one in the DC area, but I never heard it about it until after the event while I loved there. It generally seemed to be not as well advertised as the CBC or GBBC.

    I have more trouble counting birds during migration anyway. It’s harder to track how many individuals there are when there are leaves on the trees.

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