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Bull City Bird Count 2k11

December 19, 2011

Compared to the more established triangle Christmas Bird Counts in Chapel Hill and Raleigh, Durham is something of an anomaly.  CBCs based around metro areas usually have their center in the center of the associated city, but Durham, by virtue of its proximity to Chapel Hill and the fact that Chapel Hill’s count circle takes a significant chunk of Durham’s southern reaches , sits off to the north.  This is not a bad thing.  Midtown Durham offers little in the way of birding opportunities, and southern Durham is all housing developments and strip malls anymore.  North of Durham, though, hosts acres of gamelands, the far and of a major lake, and the best of the rural triangle.  It’s a great place to host a bird count.

Assuming you can get one of those productive spots.  See, CBCs, more than anything else that birders do, is based on a hierarchy system.  Long-time participants hold on to their pet spots like grim death, and it generally takes something like death to open up.  I used to be one of those fortunate few with a traditional spot back when I was living in Missouri, but now?  I’ve only been in North Carolina for 8 years, how can I be expected to earn a hot spot with that sort of thin resume?

Luck, I guess.  I had neglected to let the count coordinator know that I was interested in helping out for this camp, partly because I knew I was going to get assigned one of the lesser areas, but 24 hours before the count is scheduled to kick off, I get an email saying that someone pulled out at the last second, and would I like to do a favor and take the Flat River Waterfowl Impoundment this year?

Would I ever!

So that’s how I found myself in a gravel parking lot, in the bitterly cold pre-dawn, giving my very best owl impersonations to the inky gloom.  I busted out the Screech Owl whinny, the Barred Owl bark (my specialty), and even , in a fit of madness, a few Saw-whet toots just for the hell of it, but no owls were forthcoming.  So I headed back to my car to warm up and wait for the sun to shed a little more light on this gift I had been given by the grace of the birding gods.

I was greeted, upon the beginning of my walk, by Song Sparrows.  Many multitudes of Song Sparrows.  Piles upon piles of Song Sparrows chimping out of the frost-covered grasses like hundreds of slightly busted squeak toys.

I had never seen so many Song Sparrows in one place, and every attempt at pishing, which I attempted every 200 meters or so, brought another two dozen out of the brush like feathered shrapnel.  They were followed in abundance by slightly smaller piles of White-throated Sparrows, who were in turn followed by merely dozens and dozens of Swamp Sparrows.  There three species were in evidence the entire time, and I’d wager that upwards of 90% of the bird mass I encountered yesterday took the form of one of those three birds.

I peered through them diligently – there’s something about a CBC that brings out the OCD birder in all of us – for that Lincoln’s Sparrow I knew would be in there to no avail.  But in poring over these flocks of birds a few other sparrows became more evident.  Next in abundance where the Field Sparrows, then the handful of Savannah Sparrows in the more open sections of the gameland.  the the pair of hulking Fox Sparrows, followed by singles of lingering Chipping Sparrows and a single, stunning, adult White-crowned, a bird that can be easily missed some years.  It was probably, apart from the long-awaited Durham County American Kestrels, the best bird of the day.

Low lake levels prevented the desired waterfowl diversity I had sort of expected, and aside from a small flock of Wood Ducks I flushed screaming from a small pond, the water portion of the day was a bust.  But 46 species showed themselves to me in the end, a pretty good count notwithstanding.

So for the second half of my day I headed home to await the reports of rarities I knew would be coming forthwith.  The first arrived in the form of a text from Scott Winton, reporting an easily findable Anhinga at a neighborhood pond north of Durham.  With my son just down for a nap and the go-ahead from my wife (naturally), I was off.  Along the way I got a second text from Scott asking if I knew about the Greater White-fronted Goose found nearby.

I did not.

I needed all my bird-finding mojo to pick up these two birds in the time I was allotted by my wife.  So after quickly ticking the Anhinga (easy as pie, thank you very much), I headed out to the goose spot much faster than anyone should probably drive on those backroads, arriving to see a flock of a couple dozen Canada Geese within which was a single solitary specklebelly.

Two for two.  Not only were they county birds, but they were new Big Year birds as well, my first in almost a month.  A fine end to a surprising and successful Durham CBC.

Thanks to Scott for keeping me in the loop.

209 down.

  1. December 20, 2011 8:30 pm

    What a sparrow-filled spot. Nice to pick up new year and county birds too!

  2. December 24, 2011 6:50 pm

    Glad to help Nate! I’m just sorry I didn’t get word to you quickly enough about that Tundra Swan at Falls.

    Is this the end of your run since you’re off in Missouri or will you make it back to tick 5 western vagrants on the 31st?

  3. Nate permalink*
    December 26, 2011 12:20 am

    @Scott- I’ll be back in NC on the 29th, so two days to chase rare birds and/or turn up a predictable Eastern Screech-Owl.

    That reported Lincoln’s Sparrow in Orange County is killing me by the way…

    • December 29, 2011 10:42 pm

      If it’s any consolation, Robert Meehan tried to find that Lincoln’s and came up empty.

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