Birrrrrding the big chill
The annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count was scheduled for last Saturday (Jan. 2). However, scary weather conditions — snow, high winds and temperatures in the low teens — especially in the northern count area, caused the count to be canceled.
My birding partner, Bobby Wood, had already made the trip over from Stecoah and I had been up for a couple of hours trying to rouse some owls before we received the news. The truck was loaded and we were in birding mode so we decided to enjoy Mother Nature’s cool offering and kick around the count circle for a while on our own.
We decided to start our morning at Lake Junaluska. The closer we got to the lake, the harder the snow was falling. The roads had a light dusting that rose and swirled at the beckoning of the north wind.
We glassed the back of the lake from the pull-off along U.S. 19. A few coots were present along with some Lake J mallards, a couple of ruddy ducks, some of the feral Canada geese and some hooded mergansers. We flushed a great blue heron from the tall grasses along the wetlands, at our second stop. We watched through our binoculars as the big blue-gray bird launched with deliberate wing beats and cut a swath through the falling snow as it lumbered across the lake.
The lake was productive, as usual, providing 14 species of gulls and waterfowl. The best finds were a lone canvasback that’s been hanging out at the lake for a while, a horned grebe and a pair of lesser scaup. Of course the colorful hooded mergansers and dapper buffleheads are always a treat to see. Plus it seemed uniquely apropos to watch ducks bobbing in the snow on a Christmas count.
We left Lake Junaluska for the Waynesville watershed. The windswept reservoir was the antithesis of Lake J, not a bird to be seen. We cruised the roads around the watershed where we found hermit thrush, white-crowned sparrow, golden-crowned kinglet, hairy woodpecker and red-breasted nuthatch among others. The winter wonderland mystique was reinforced in the watershed as we stood in a small clearing, drenched in sunlight, looking past the occasional snowflake at the dazzling white peaks above us.
We made a few other stops before wrapping up between 1:30 and 2 p.m. We wound up with a respectable winter’s morn birding total of 44 species.
While the official count was canceled this year, I want to thank the town of Waynesville and local farmer Jim Francis for once again supporting the Christmas Bird Count by allowing access to their properties. We’ll see you guys again next year.