The Southern Lake Norman Christmas Bird Count was held last Sunday in record-setting fashion. First, the thermometer hit 70 degrees, making it the warmest Southern Lake Norman count in its 24 year existence.
Second, a combination of factors combined to make the 102 species tallied on that day the highest species count ever for the count. It is rare when things come together so ideally. Here is how I think it happened:
Record cold to our north: A double whammy of record setting arctic air enveloped the upper Midwest, Ohio Valley, and the Northeast. The resulting freeze-up of open water sent huge numbers of waterfowl southward and into the Southeast. Waterfowl diversity increased allowing birders to locate common goldeneye, American wigeon, and greater scaup; all species that are rarely recorded on local counts.
Warm weather leading up to the count: November and December had been relatively warm, thus allowing such semi-hardy species as osprey, merlin, orange-crowned warbler, blue-headed vireo, and Baltimore oriole to linger in our area for a longer period into December.
2016 is an irruptive year: Some Northern species only show up in select years; that is they “irrupt” southward due to various cone crop failures in Canada and the northern United States. Multiple groups tallied red-breasted nuthatches and purple finches on count day. It may be four or five years before the nuthatches appear again. Purple finches are hit or miss in most years too.
We have really great birders in our area: All of the groups in the field did a great job of finding not only the rarities but also almost all of the more uncommon permanent residents, some of which can be tough to find anytime in Mecklenburg County. Species like double-crested cormorant, American coot, common raven, and northern bobwhite were all accounted for. All of those species can be easily missed any year. The key to conducting a memorable count is to find all, or almost all, of species that are known to reside in the count circle and then add a few unexpected ones.
It will be interesting to see if conditions will persist and if they will have a discernible affect on upcoming counts in the Carolinas. The Charlotte count is December 26, and I will participate in counts over the New Year’s weekend in Wilmington and Southport
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.