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Wednesday, 02 January 2008 00:00

Hits and misses

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The Carolina Field Birders (CFB) conducted their sixth annual Christmas Bird Count this past Saturday (12/29.) The annual CBC count is sponsored by the National Audubon Society and is the longest running ornithological database in the world. Initiated 108 years ago, the CBC is now international in scope with more than 1,800 official 15-mile diameter circles and more than 50,000 participants worldwide.

The CFB’s count circle covers a large portion of western Haywood County and some of eastern Jackson County, including Balsam Mountain Preserve. We are especially grateful to the town of Waynesville, Balsam Mountain Preserve and Jim Francis for allowing us access to their property.

The pre-dawn hours started off exceptionally windy with intermittent rain, which was a bane to all who got up early to do a little owling. While we wound up with two species of owls, great-horned and eastern screech, they all came during regular count hours.

I was one of those dedicated — spelled dimwitted — owlers that got up before dawn, knowing that high wind and rain are an anathema to owling. I figured I could at least coax the pair of great-horneds that have taken up residence in the woods near my home into responding to a tape. No such luck.

However, when Ed Kelley and I passed back by the house around 5 p.m., all we had to do was roll the windows down to hear them calling as they do most evenings. You can distinguish between male and female great-horned owls by their calls. The male generally gives four to five sonorous hoots – hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo. While the female’s call consists of six to eight hoots – hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo.

Bob Olthoff and his group discovered an eastern screech owl people watching from the calm warm confines of a cozy nest box.

This was the second year that not a single turkey vulture was recorded. They have never been numerous on the count, which leads me to believe that most of the turkey vultures, which are common in the area from spring to fall, are migrants. Other misses this year included cedar waxwings, ruffed grouse and, believe it or not, robins.

On the other hand, we had at least three species that were “first-timers” for our count. These were double-crested cormorant, rusty blackbird and horned grebe.

The total number of species for the count was 74, which is average or just above. The highest count tally to date was 77 species in December 2005. The lowest tally is 69 species, which was recorded the first two years of the count.

The wind never laid all day, making birding pretty difficult, especially for those birding in the woods. Blair Ogburn, senior naturalist at Balsam Mountain Preserve, and her group were buffeted about all day and only recorded 18 species.

Ed Kelley and I stayed in the Waynesville watershed till 10 a.m. or so and only recorded nine species there, including two species of duck (ruddy duck and hooded merganser) on the reservoir. We did feel somewhat vindicated when a fly-by flock of 20 pine siskins lit and began to forage right in front of us.

The wind stayed high but so did the temps. It’s a lot easier to keep searching for “just one more species” when the temperature is in the mid to high 50s.

While it was tough birding for some, it was fun birding for all.

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