Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas Bird Count!

I joined Tom Krakauer and Ken (whose last name I can’t recall) in Quail Roost up in northern Durham County to help with the Durham Christmas Bird Count.  I already commented on the beauty of this part of Durham in my post about the spring count here.  
Quail Roost Farm

Of course it looks much different in winter, but many of the locally important birds are the same…it’s one of the few areas in the count circle that reliably harbors White-crowned Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks, for example.

After bagging our open-country targets and getting buzzed by an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk we dropped by a small housing development to check its pond and hopefully glimpse a few ducks.  As we pulled up, somebody noted a cormorant sitting on the water.  I was in the back seat and couldn’t see it, but ticked Double-crested Cormorant off our list—a new bird for us for the day.

I hopped out of the car and began walking up to the pond when the cormorant began its skittering take-off (flappity flap flap flap).  I brought up my binoculars and saw the bird had a long flared tail with a white terminal band.  “Woah!” 

This was no cormorant, but what on earth would an- “That’s an Anhinga,” Ken finished my thought for me. 
It flew a lap down and back over the lake and we could see its long serpentine neck (for which it has earned the name “snake bird”) and sharp pointed bill (with which it spears fish).  It finally lit in a small overhanging tree on the far side of the lake and I snapped off a few documentary photos.  It clamored about in its tree and made some classic Anhinga-style postures with its head and neck as if posing.

aka "Water Turkey" or "Snake Bird"
Anhinga is a very rare visitor to the triangle, a Durham Christmas Bird Count first and an overdue state bird for me (#289)!  It turns out that Anhingas have been turning up in North Carolina CBCs sporadically for the last couple decades, but Durham is the most northwesterly point for one yet.  Perhaps that's the flip side of all this warm siskins or Red-breasted Nuthatches, but we get an Anhinga. I'll take it.

Looks like it's flaring its throat here


I have to admit that when I first heard the concept of a Christmas Bird Count, it sounded like a rather bleak undertaking.  On top of the potentially frigid weather, the dead of winter isn’t a time of year when the world feels very birdy.  Christmas is a low point in migratory activity for most species. Few birds are singing. None are nesting.

But Christmas bird counts almost always turn up unusual birds.  In compelling an area’s most experienced birders to go out and systematically and optimally cover the most productive birding hotspots, those vagrants, lingerers or stragglers get found and ogled. It reinforces the notion that rare birds are always out there just waiting to be found by the right person who can recognize them for what they are.  

To discover a rare bird on a count, such as an Anhinga, or a White-winged Dove (as I found with Mike Schultz and Robert Meehan at last year’s Bodie/Pea count), is always a thrill. 

But I was upstaged by Brian Bockhahn, who found an even rarer bird: a Greater White-fronted Goose (the first ever for Durham County and the Falls Lake area).  It was hanging out with a flock of its Canadian cousins at the very same pond where Brian had found a blue form Snow Goose on count day last year.  
Greater White-fronted Goose!
I spotted that very same Snow Goose flying over Ellerbe Creek last year, so I guess technically I found it first, but I am naming that pond “Brian’s magic CBC Goose Pond.” 

Of course I went to see the goose (state bird #290!), but pulling up to the pond and spotted the distant sleeping goose that I knew would be there didn’t have the same magic as having my cormorant morph into an Anhinga.

Sadly I’ll be missing the Bodie/Pea count this year and won’t be able to help transmute any Mourning Doves into White-winged Doves, but I do plan on counting Mattamuskeet.  Usually the best I can do is make a Brown Thrasher appear, but I have a feeling this year will be different. Maybe I'll finally be able to turn a wigeon Eurasian.

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