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The Naturalist's Corner: Musings from count year 2018

Dawn on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Don Hendershot photo Dawn on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Don Hendershot photo

This past spring was one of the more trying ones with regard to my annual U.S. Forest Service bird point survey. The survey runs each year from May 1 to June 15. You might have noticed it rained a bit in May. Of course, one can’t count in the rain, but according to protocol if it’s not raining counts may be conducted and this spring there were days I birded just after and just before rains. One thing I thought I noticed — on mornings with heavy cloud cover, especially those mornings where it had rained before dawn, birds were much quieter than normal.

I realize the folly of trying to infer anything about nature from a brief and small set of data but it has piqued my curiosity to do a little research. I have been visiting most of these points for about 15 years — one gets an idea of what to expect. This spring I would go to a point that, as a rule, is generally quite birdy — and instead of getting 12 or 15 species I would get 7 or 8. And there were birds, I knew from habitat and past experience should be there — but not a peep. On a few occasions, just to satisfy my curiosity, after my 10 minute count period was over and I hadn’t hear a particular species that I thought should be there — say hooded warbler — I would play the song from my phone app and get an almost immediate response. I wouldn’t count these birds — playbacks are not part of the protocol for these surveys — and for the data to be valid protocol must be consistent. But it seemed to me these cloudy mornings were much quieter than normal.

And the heavy May rains presented other problems. The French Broad flooded River Road in Hot Springs and I had to keep an eye on the river level and wait till the flooding receded so I could get to a couple of points. Plus there were some FS roads that were washed out and not drivable requiring a hike in to the points or finding an alternative route.

There are always vagaries associated with one-day counts — especially counts with duration of only 10 minutes. Think about it, for a bird to be counted it has to be within eyesight or earshot and detectable during the 10 minutes you are there — perhaps on Wednesday May 16 between 8:30 a.m. and 8:40 a.m. the hooded warbler was busy foraging in the dense underbrush and not singing or perhaps it was on the far side of its territory out of earshot — there is a myriad of reasons not to hear a particular bird at a particular time on a particular day.

And then there are those days when the tables are turned. This year while surveying along the Art Loeb and Ivestor Gap trails — there were numerous house wrens. House wrens are loud and usually incessant singers but I can’t remember them showing up on the count at these locations before — they were clearly there this year.

Other takeaways for 2018 — I was happy to find yellow-rumped warblers at two locations this season — Roan Mountain and Mount Mitchell. Grandfather District is still tops for Swainson’s warblers — at least as far as my points are concerned. And on the Grandfather they are not only associated with dense rhododendron but other dense early successional habitat where there are lots of pole-sized stems.

And there is one consistent takeaway — dawn on the Blue Ridge Parkway and/or in the forest is always a special time and place.

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

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