At 8 a.m. on a December morning, the newly risen sun had barely warmed the air over Franklin from the previous night’s low of 18 degrees when knots of bundled-up birders began gathering across the county to partake in a chilly winter tradition — the Christmas Bird Count.
One of those knots formed at the Big Bear entrance to the Little Tennessee River Greenway, a crew of four birders — plus one Smoky Mountain News reporter — waiting in frosty low-30s weather to receive their marching orders.
This year will mark the 117th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC.) The CBC is the longest-lived and largest citizen-science project in the world.
The count began in 1900. It was the brainchild of Frank Chapman, one of the officers of the fledgling Audubon Society. Chapman created the “bird census” as an alternative to the traditional Christmas “side-hunt,” a contest where groups would shoulder their arms and hit the fields and/or woods — the team that came back with the greatest number of corpses would be declared the winner.
There’s plenty of tradition and symbolism that goes along with the holiday season, but for birders no tradition is more part of the holiday than the annual Christmas Bird Count.
The count is just what it sounds like: Every year around Christmastime, birding groups around the country get together for a full day outside to count as many bird species as possible in a circle that’s 15 miles wide. Local groups can set their own date, but they have to fall within about 10 days of Christmas Day. This year, bird counts are happening between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.
This year’s ninth annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was held Friday Dec. 30. As I was driving home from work at 7 a.m. that Friday morning things were looking good. By the time I got a nap and met Paul Super, who had graciously agreed to help out, and his friend Patrick Flaherty beating the bushes around Autumn Care, it was about 12:30 p.m. and the wind was bllloooooowwwwiiinnggg!
Now wind is a terrible obstacle for birders. Birds are prone to sit tight rather than be buffeted around and you can’t here a chip note or song unless you’re within 50 feet or so of the source. But after last year’s 10 hours in the pouring rain, wind wasn’t so bad.
Paul and Patrick had already done the yeoman’s work, recording more than 30 species.
We left Autumn Care and went down to the vicinity of Barber’s Orchard to an area that had historically been very good for sparrows. Much of the landscape was altered due to the EPA cleanup or arsenic from the old orchard. While we were lamenting the lack of sparrows we looked up to see a gorgeous adult bald eagle, right overhead, flying low across the open spaces. That made us feel a little better about the lack of sparrows.
We kicked around a little more and flushed a pretty rufous-looking sparrow-sized bird from the brambles. We were all on the same page, thinking fox sparrow. But try as we might we could never coax the bird up again and, of course, no one got a fox sparrow for the count.
In fact the count total, 65 species, tied the record low for species. It was the same number we recorded last year and I, for one, would much rather be dry and wind-blown with 65 species than soaked to the bone with 65 species.
And while we tied our low record for bird species, we may have set a record for participation. I think Bob Olthoff, count compiler, said we had nearly 30 participants for this year’s count. It was a great mixture of tried and true troopers plus a good dose of new blood.
Paul, Patrick and I left the orchard and made a couple of short stops before making it to the Waynesville watershed. The reservoir was vacant of waterfowl for the second year in a row.
We did get to add golden-crowned kinglet, brown creeper, ruffed grouse and common raven to our list at the watershed. We still dipped on what one would think would be an easy find in the watershed — pileated woodpecker. We also didn’t have a regular winter resident in the area — hermit thrush. We decided to leave the watershed and head back to an area near the Waynesville Rec Center where we frequently find hermit thrushes in the winter. We dipped again.
By this time it was getting late and Patrick needed to go. I dropped Paul and Patrick and made one more mad dash to the watershed hoping to call up an owl at dusk. Once again — the best laid plans of mice and birders — not an owl around. But the bird gods smile and as I was dashing around the watershed, I spooked a hermit thrush that flushed and flew across the road right in front of me. It was the only one recorded on the count.
The lies, I mean stories, warm, tasty food and cool libations at Bocelli’s were as enjoyable and congenial as ever. And when we counted down the list we had two brand new species for the count despite the overall low total. Our group and one other nearby had seen the adult bald eagle and the Lake Junaluska group had an immature so we recorded two bald eagles (new species), and the Lake Junaluska group also recorded a greater scaup which was new for the circle.
As usual the Balsam CBC wishes to thank the staff and management at Bocelli’s for putting up with a bunch of noisy birders and to also thank the Town of Waynesville for access to the watershed and Waynesville residents Jim Francis and Glen Tolar for access to their private property.