You Can Count On Christmastime

December 25, 2017 (Merry Christmas)

It’s the middle of Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season again! It’s been over a century since Frank Chapman proposed counting birds on Christmas instead of killing them, as had been done for generations (thanks, Frank!). Administered by the National Audubon Society, the CBC is an important pseudo-census of birds in the western hemisphere (primarily centered on North America).

The counts go from mid-December to early January every year. Please have a look at Audubon’s CBC site and see if there’s a count you can still help with. Please contact the compiler for the circle and don’t just “show up” as these are ostensibly planned out a bit in advance, and it’s only courteous to ask first.

Last year I met up with my friend Dave Goodwin and tromped around East Pasco County. This year he enlisted my help with his team’s portion of the Alafia Banks counting circle in Hillsborough County, last Sunday. I brought Camille along for her first CBC (plus, it meant I didn’t have to drive – sorry Camille…).

Our team included Dave, his friend and mentee Erik Haney, Brian Ahern, Camille, and  (I hope obviously) me. Brian had to leave us in the afternoon for other commitments, but the rest of us had a full day of hiking, driving, and birding.

We started before dawn at the Balm Scrub Preserve [map] for a nearly 7.5 kilometer (over 4.5 miles) hike. We hoped to get some owls and perhaps Eastern Whippoorwills, though they eluded us. Hearing coyotes baying in the distance was eerie and thrilling, though.

As the sun was preparing to rise, we heard several plaintive whistle calls around us. I at first speculated that they might be single-note Tufted Titmouse calls, but they didn’t have quite the right timbre. Brian Ahern realized eventually that they were actually the dawn calls of Hermit Thrushes. We soon heard accompanied “pip-pip” calls in association with the whistles, and eventually got some brief looks at the birds in low light.

The sunrise was beautiful and lit up large expanses of scrub, palmettos, and patches of woods.

The sun rises on (left to right) Dave, Brian, Camille, and Erik. Here we’re heading across some open areas in the Preserve toward the woods.

We had some Bachman’s Sparrows call as we moved along, and other birds began to wake up, including House, Sedge, and Carolina Wrens, some warbler species, and overflights of American Robins and American Pipits.

The transitional areas and borders between the open scrub and the woods were good places for Ovenbirds, Pine, Palm, Black-and-White, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Near the start of Bullfrog Creek, we entered some denser woods with damp soil and several dead trees (often called “snags”).

Balm Scrub Preserve has a diversity of land cover types and vegetation, including woods, scrub, grasses, and pasture, as well as ponds and streams.

Here, we had Pileated, Red-bellied and Downy Woodpeckers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers flying and calling nearby. Some American Robins eventually flew in, as wells as some Common Grackles.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker peering down on our group with suspicious eyes. Erik had been playing calls to bring birds toward us.

After leaving the Balm preserve, we spent a good chunk of the morning driving various roads, looking for Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Western Kingbirds, among the more expected roadside birds.

An American Kestrel doing an Angry Bird impression.

After Erik and I got a quick glimpse of a Western Kingbird on Colding Loop Road, we drove a little further and spotted what we thought was a pair of Scissor-tailed Flycatchers. It turns out there were three! Two had somewhat short tails, while one had an almost full-length tail. These birds are beautiful and elegant.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher with a long tail.
One of the two Scissor-tailed Flycatchers with shorter tails. This could be a juvenile bird, or one that lost its tail feathers from molting or damage.

We then stopped at Moody Pond [map], hoping for shorebirds and some ducks. There were several dozen Least Sandpipers (seen mostly in a spotting scope), and an overflight of some American White Pelicans, and a good mix of wading birds. Both species of yellowlegs were present, too.

A Greater Yellowlegs contentedly feeding in the shallow parts of Moody Pond.

We did another drive along Colding Loop and Sweat Loop Roads (yes, these are the actual names), stopping at one point to flush out a small group of Baltimore Orioles, and also catch brief glimpses of both Painted and Indigo Buntings.

After a somewhat sad drive through some new housing developments that were using up some previously good habitat for things like Grasshopper Sparrows and other upland birds, we made another pass along Sweat Loop Road (we visited those areas A LOT), this time stopping to get a mixed flock of Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, warblers, and Tufted Titmouses. There was even an adult Red-headed Woodpecker, which was considered by Dave and Erik to be an unexpected find! These photos are from the best looks I’ve had of this species.

In my opinion, the Red-headed Woodpecker is as brilliant and striking as any tropical bird.
In addition to the all-red head, you can see the diagnostic white wing patches on the black back.

We ended the day by driving back to the Balm Scrub Preserve, hoping to see or hear owls, nightjars, and maybe even catch a glimpse of an American Woodcock. As we drove in, we saw a raptor silhouetted on the top of a dirt pile, that got Dave so excited he could barely speak. At first I wasn’t sure what the big deal was, as I saw the characteristic shape of a Crested Caracara, as the bird flew a short distance to a tree. Dave finally managed to get out that this would be only the 4th county record of the bird – ever.

The unmistakable silhouette of a Crested Caracara in twilight.

The bird flew off before we could get much closer views, and after nearly alighting on the ground in the adjacent pasture, flushed up another caracara! They each flew away in opposite directions and quickly out of sight.

The sky grew quickly darker, and we did hear some distant owls and a few other birds settling in for the night. Erik walked around one of the ponds and texted Dave that he had an Eastern Whippoorwill near him, visible in his flashlight beam. As Camille and I advanced to his location, we heard what I thought was Erik playing a whippoorwill recording to my right, but then I heard Erik calling my name to my left. He thought I was playing a recording. It turns out there were two Eastern Whippoorwills near his location. While we missed seeing the bird he had been watching, we did hear both birds quite distinctly, which added another lifer to Camille’s list.

On our way out of the preserve to get to the compilation dinner, we had one final surprise. We played the recording of an Eastern Screech Owl and had two owls call back and come close to our position by the gate. This capped an amazing and exhausting day of birding. As a team, we recorded 101 birds – I can claim 100, my first birding century day!

We wrapped up the count with the whole circle team at a local restaurant, as Charlie Fisher tallied the final list of birds for the Alafia Banks Circle.

Here are a list of my eBird entries for the day (including my single-bird incidental lists):

Balm Scrub Preserve:

Colding Loop Road:

Carlton Lake Road, Wimauma (incidental):

Moody Pond:

Colding Loop Road (again):

Sweat Loop Road:

Big Bend Road and Balm Riverview Road, Riverview (incidentals):

Balm Riverview Road:

Balm Road (incidental):

Huckleberry Lane/Sweat Loop Road Intersection:

Alderman Turner Road, Wimauma:

Colding Loop Road (again):

Balm Scrub Preserve (again):

These counts are important to gauge the trends of bird populations at local, state, and national levels, and it’s always good to go out of my local area to birdwatch with friends. It was a long, long day, though, and I’m giving thought to staying for local CBCs next year. But that’s 12 months away. Who knows what adventures are in store between now and then.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone, no matter what or when you celebrate them. If I don’t squeeze in a final post before the end of the year, Happy New Year, too.


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