The 117th year of National Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count kicks off this Dec. 14 and lasts through Jan. 5. For many serious birders the count period is the highlight of their year.
I participate in five Christmas Counts; and I know folks who participate in even more. The days and even weeks before the counting officially begins are filled with hopes and speculation of favorable weather conditions and lots of birds.
Each year the anticipation brings back fond memories of decades of Christmas Counts long past. I remember 1989 in Lynchburg, Va., when the high for the day was 23 with a howling wind and eight inches of snow already on the ground. The north wind funneled right down the James River and hit me square in the face, and I loved every minute of it. There were birds to find; and a female common merganser obliged.
How about Southport, NC in 2003, when 78 F temperatures put the birds to sleep by noon and I started keeping butterfly, dragonfly, and reptile lists along with the bird list. On the same count in 2009, the high temperature reached only 33 F. The birds were good but the highlight was a harbor seal off the Oak Island Pier that day.
I have been socked in by all day fog at Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge in Anson County. Try finding birds when you can’t see your hand in front of your face. And yes, it has rained a good many times. But the count must go on!
I have been lucky enough to see some great local rarities over the years…an eared grebe at Lynchburg; a Western kingbird at Kerr Lake, Virginia; Ross’s goose at Southport; Wilson’s warbler at Wilmington,; and just last year, a Cape May warbler at Lake Norman.
I have been blessed with spending full days in the field with both crackerjack and casual birders. Many I see just once a year, and over the years I have come to look forward to seeing them more than the birds.
So what will the 2016-17 Christmas Count deliver this year? Of course it is impossible to know, but I do know this: Whatever the conditions and outcome, the days will be worth it.
For more information on the 117th Christmas Bird Count go to http://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.