Friends, feathers and fellowship

Friday, Dec. 28, was the date of the eleventh annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count (CBC) — 11 dates but 10 actual counts as the 2009 CBC was cancelled due to inclement weather. This year’s weather was much better for the Balsam count — cloudy to overcast, breezy and cool but not too bad.

We wound up with 70 total species, which is about par for the Balsam circle. Two cool species, horned grebe and greater scaup, that were present on Lake Junaluska Thursday were MIA Friday. At least they will be recorded in the “count week” tally. 

Because of my “day” job, which is at night, I didn’t catch up with counters till a little after noon when I joined the crew at Balsam Mountain Preserve (BMP). Balsam Mountain Trust (BMT) Head Naturalist, Blair Ogburn, who was a bit under the weather, managed to get the count started around 8 a.m. and then left it in the capable hands of Jeff Gottlieb, a naturalist from Whittier, and Kate Beavers, a biology senior at Western Carolina University and intern at BMT.

When I arrived at the Preserve, Beavers was feeding the raptors at the nature center. Waiting for her to finish proved pretty productive species-wise as we added hairy woodpecker, brown creeper and golden-crowned kinglet to our list. The rest of the afternoon was spent running the roads at Balsam Mountain trying to cover new ground and perhaps find new species. Pickings were slim, but we did add yellow-bellied sapsucker, eastern towhee and ruffed grouse. We tallied 22 species at BMP, which is about average, but two of those, hairy woodpecker and ruffed grouse, were the only ones for the count and that makes the effort worthwhile. 

Rusty blackbird was a good find for the Balsam count. I think we’ve had them once or twice previously. While there were no really rare species tallied for this year’s count, compiler Bob Olthoff said that probably the most interesting records were the large numbers of Eurasian collared-doves (43) and purple finches (20±).

The success of the Balsam count is always guaranteed by the volunteers who stand ready to brave whatever Mother Nature blows their way and the generous landowners — the town of Waynesville, Jim Francis and Glenn Tolar, who allow us access to their property.

Sleep — perchance to dream about another CBC — then on to Franklin Saturday morning for the Franklin Bird Club’s inaugural CBC. Rumored bad weather postponed the start of the Franklin CBC to 9:30 a.m. I met Brent and Angela Faye Martin, Tom and Sue Ann Reisdorph and their 7-year-old granddaughter Abby at Frog Quarters, along the Little Tennessee River Greenway. We set out from there for a stretch of the greenway behind the Macon County Library.

The greenway proved quite productive. A red-tailed hawk, bluebirds, one downy and one pileated woodpecker greeted us as we exited our cars in the library parking lot. A short hike down to Cartoogechaye Creek and we were immersed in copious numbers of field, white-throated and song sparrows, with goldfinches, white-breasted nuthatches, chickadees and titmice thrown in for good measure. We added white-crowned to the sparrow list plus great blue heron, mallard and belted kingfisher along the greenway.

We were also blessed with raptors at our greenway stop. We had a total of two red-taileds, we got both accipiters (sharp-shinned and Cooper’s), plus turkey and black vultures, and the best bird of the weekend for me an adult male (gray ghost) northern harrier. The harrier, initially spotted by Angela Faye (as we were constantly reminded, the rest of the day) bounced out of the woods at the confluence of Cartoogechaye and the Little Tennessee River. It rose and banked in it’s buoyant way and glided away from us, giving us great looks at the gray plumage, large white rump patch and long, narrow wings.

Despite our productive day along the greenway, we added species immediately at Tessentee by getting great looks at four fox sparrows plus a couple of dark-eyed juncos minutes after exiting our cars. We also added both kinglets, morning dove, eastern phoebe, Canada goose and, believe it or not, another raptor — an immature red-shouldered hawk.

The Franklin Bird Club enjoyed a strong show of support with more than 20 volunteers beating the bushes all day. And the count was quite successful, with 55 species tallied. 

A great count and a great day ending with friends, feathers and fellowship.

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

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