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Wednesday, 11 January 2006 00:00

Holiday Bird Nerd Diary: Yellow-headed blackbird highlights Balsam bird count

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The Carolina Field birders, friends and volunteers conducted their fourth annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count on Thursday, Dec. 29.

According to count compiler Bob Olthoff, 22 birders participated in this year’s count. Counters tallied a record 77 species, besting last year’s record by two species. A yellow-headed blackbird spotted at the test farm along Ratcliff Cove Road was the rare bird for this year’s count. The bird was discovered by Marilyn Westphal, Tony Scardaci, Charlotte Goedsche and Tim Carsten as they scanned the mixed flocks of blackbirds, cowbirds and starlings.

Thanks to modern technology the bird was digitally documented. Westphal called count compiler Bob Olthoff by cell phone. Bob and Wayne Forsythe joined her group at the test farm and the bird was relocated. Thankfully it was not camera shy and undoubtedly does not have that “blurry” gene that has foiled attempts at documenting the ivory-billed woodpecker. Forsythe was able to get photos with one of those shirt-pocket digital cameras. Bob and Wayne identified the bird as a first-year male.

The yellow-headed blackbird generally nests from western and central Canada, east to the Great Lakes and south to northern Baja, California and Arizona. It is a neotropical migrant and winters from the southwestern U.S. to Costa Rica. The bird is a bit of a wanderer and is found as a rare spring and fall migrant throughout the eastern U.S.

Lake Junaluska and its environs proved quite productive. Beth Brinson and Cathy King, Junaluska section leaders, reported 50 species from their section. Some highlights from Lake Junaluska included canvasback, common loon, Bonaparte’s gull and snow goose.

Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count is the prototype citizen science project. With more than 100 years of continuing data, it is a window on the world of avian distribution and population dynamics. This data is used by Audubon to designate Important Bird Areas and create WatchList. Through WatchList, Audubon monitors more than 100 species of birds whose numbers are declining.

It’s the citizen science aspect that makes the annual bird count different from most outings. Most birders, myself included, are generally intent on seeing as many species as possible on an outing — the more rare species, the better.

That’s not what the Christmas Bird Count is about. Audubon’s bird count is composed of 15-mile diameter circles from all around the world. These count circles stay constant, and participants annually scoured them to record the number and abundance of species. Now don’t get me wrong; there’s not a birder out there who’s not looking for the next species, and rarities are always a thrill. But from Audubon’s perspective, it is just as important to record how many European starlings, brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds are in a mixed flock as it is to discover a yellow-headed blackbird among them.

I have to remind myself of this scientific focus. My section of the annual bird count is the Balsam Mountain Preserve, which I co-led this year with Balsam Mountain Trust Chief Naturalist Blair Ogburn. Now the Balsam Mountain Preserve is a pretty birdy place. It boasts more than 50 species of nesting birds, and the last fall migrant survey turned up more than 70 species. But the Balsam Mountain Preserve in the dead of winter is a different story.

At this point in time, one can expect the winter population of birds in the Balsam Mountain Preserve to produce a species count in the mid-20s. As development (golf course and residential) continues at the Balsam Mountain Preserve, this number may change. By having a Christmas Bird Count already established at the Balsam Mountain Preserve, biologists will be able to document how these habitat changes affect the wintering population of birds there.

Interior forest species are currently the mainstay of the Balsam Mountain Preserve, and while we only recorded 23 species for the section, we did add two species – brown creeper and ruffed grouse – to the overall list. While the yellow-headed blackbird was surely out of its normal range, the award for long-distance migrant this year might actually go to J.R. (Dennis) Crouse, a birder from upstate New York who was visiting family in Waynesville. Crouse belongs to a birding club near Buffalo and generally participates in the annual Christmas Bird Count. Travel plans put him in Waynesville this year on his club’s bird count date, but he was able to get his bird count fix by calling Olthoff and volunteering for the Balsam count.

The Carolina Field Birders is a non-dues-paying group of birding aficionados who sponsor the annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count and regularly schedule birding trips throughout the year. To learn more about the Carolina Field Birders, contact Bob Olthoff at 828.627.2546.

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