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Countin’ in the cold

out natcornI had originally intended to spend today (Monday, Feb. 16) doing a couple of short surveys for the annual Great Backyard Bird Count. But Sunday morning amid more and more (and more and more dire) weather forecasts warning of some pretty heavy winter weather coming our way I began to contemplate counting Sunday instead. Around 9 a.m. Sunday I peeked out the downstairs window. Well, in my yard were 17 wild turkeys. It looked like a large group of jakes and gobblers.

Hard to pass up on 17 turkeys for your first GBBC tick so I restocked the feeders and took a turn around the backyard. It was chilly and blustery, around 24 degrees with a 15 mph north wind, but there was decent activity, which increased rather quickly when the pine siskins discovered their buffet was ready. I estimated (conservatively) 70 siskins. I recorded 16 species for my yard.

Since I was in the counting mode and all the forecasts were still threatening us with awful Monday weather, I decided to head to Lake Junaluska. It had warmed up a couple of degrees but the wind coming across the lake felt even colder. Some of the waterfowl that normally hang at the lake during the winter were there in good numbers. 

The large raft of ruddy ducks (I counted 75) was present, I also had at least 30 ring-necked ducks, at least 50 American coot, 20 pied-billed grebes, 17 ring-billed gulls and 11 buffleheads. A small group of female and/or immature canvasbacks that have been on the lake since late autumn were still present. I saw two female redheads and two greater scaup, one male and one female, mixed in with five lesser scaup. I wound up with 34 species between by yard and Lake J, not a bad tally for about four hours of birding on a cold mid-February day.

 

Documenting those rarities

And, I’m happy to say, it looks like GBBC officials accepted the “75” pine siskins. Regular readers of this column may remember a few years back when we were inundated with those little brown streaked eating machines all winter — I recorded 80 pine siskins on my GBBC submission, and told, politely that I must have been mistaken. Well this year I had photos, and while there is no way for me to photograph all those birds in one frame I could show huge numbers on the ground plus show the deck railings and hanging feeder full too.

No doubt, photos are a great way to seal the deal when it comes to rarities. But, I’m a little ambivalent about the weight photos (or not having photos) seem to carry with regional compilers and/or different rare bird committees. It seems that more than a few are all too ready to dismiss rare sightings without photographic evidence, even if the bird was viewed by two or three knowledgeable birders with good looks.

The lesson, here, for birders is twofold; birders should try and get a photo of any rarity they want to submit for recognition even if it’s a fuzzy one from your cell phone. You would be surprised what some people can tease out of a poor photo. But birders should also study the kind of characteristics that distinguish species and be prepared to immediately (in the field) document with descriptions and/or field sketches the characters they used to identify the bird. And we’re not talking about Sibley-like or Peterson-like field sketches — it’s more the dimensions and absence or presence of features — i.e., if you wanted to differentiate between a hairy and downy woodpecker you would draw a beak that was as long as the head is wide for a hairy or shorter than the head is wide for a downy. To differentiate between a ruby-crowned and golden-crowned kinglet you would note the presence or absence of an eye ring. 

Was that an ivory-billed?

 (Don Hendershot is a naturalist and a writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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