Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Christmas Bird Count: Part 2

In addition to the gathering of friends and family and a bounty of food, the Christmas season brings with it the much anticipated Christmas Bird Count. This year, Aubrey’s mom, Sue, joined me in doing my second Count of the year. Kudos to Sue for her eagerness to participate after two long days of driving down from Iowa. Also in our group were my good friend Emily and a pair of biologists, Brad and Amanda from the USFWS and NOAA respectively.

We left the house at 0330 and arrived at our destination about 0445. We did a little owling and then as the sun came up we went to the guard house at the Gulf Power Plant where we navigated the attendant through a series of communication errors. In a nutshell, access passes and all associated paperwork was taken care of well in advance as has been done for years. However, somebody in middle management neglected to pass this information to the attendant, so after a series of early morning phone calls to the higher ups on Saturday, the problem was resolved. It’s not everyday you get to call the boss at sunrise on his day off. After that we slipped thru the security gates and checked off our target species, black-crowned night herons. The species only turns up in one or two spots and in small numbers in the Count Circle so it was important we compare the numbers to the previous year’s records and add the species to the List. A total of 9 birds were present in the warm water discharge canals. While scoping the canal we were also provided the opportunity to educate and interact with a few workers who were curious about what we doing.

After a bit of birding we left the restricted access area and entered Maher farms, a very large tract owned by real estate baron, St. Joe Corporation. Although I am not terribly familiar with the property’s history, as I understand it, St. Joe tried to farm Shrimp in the 70's and 80's after altering the hydrology of the salt marshes to control salinity. Apparently, the venture failed due to pathogen control issues. This is very similar to what the Federal Government did to establish the renowned St. Marks NWR in Wakulla County - dike and dam salt marshes and control hydrology to provide migratory waterfowl (duck) habitat. In any case, the tract consisted of a series of canals and dikes and roads. The uplands consisted of recently thinned pines (the heavy equipment was still on site and there was fresh green wood, so they were in only days before). After we exhausted the canals and woodlands we turned our efforts and energy to the marshes, open water areas, and mudflats. Unfortunately we weren’t able to cover a tremendous amount of ground due to Brad’s bum knee and the tide not being conducive to covering more ground.

We covered several miles in stiff winds and cold weather, but in the end, it was worth it. We picked up quite a few species of shorebirds (plovers, sandpipers, gulls, terns,) and aquatic birds (ducks, herons, grebes, egrets…) along with numerous raptors. One of the highlights for the group was spotted by Eagle Eye Emily, who located 58 great egrets in a very distant salt marsh. I also picked up a life bird: the swamp sparrow. The robins were out in full swing- one flock we estimated 1500 birds and to be honest it was conservative - I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more than 2500 feathered friends in that group. By the way, that many robins generate a lot of noise.

We ended the day approximately 12 hours after the sun came up and headed for a local restaurant where we swapped stories and warmed up with food/beverages (although our service was poor and food cold, but you get the idea). After dinner it was a 90 min drive, making it nearly a 17 hour day.

- Matt

Bay County CBC Species List:

1. Bufflehead

2. Hooded Merganser

3. Red-breasted Merganser

4. Common Loon

5. Pied-billed Grebe

6. Horned Grebe

7. Brown Pelican

8. Double-crested Cormorant

9. Great Blue Heron

10. Great Egret

11. Snowy Egret

12. Tricolored Heron

13. Reddish Egret

14. Green Heron

15. Black-crowned Night Heron

16. Turkey Vulture

17. Osprey

18. Bald Eagle

19. Northern Harrier

20. Red-shouldered Hawk

21. Red-tailed Hawk

22. American Kestral

23. Clapper Rail

24. Black-bellied Plover

25. Semipalmated Plover

26. Killdeer

27. Greater Yellowlegs

28. Willet

29. Spotted Sandpiper

30. Western Sandpiper

31. Dunlin

32. Short-billed Dowitcher

33. Wilson’s Snipe

34. Laughing Gull

35. Ring-billed Gull

36. Forster’s Tern

37. Royal Tern

38. Mourning Dove

39. Great Horned Owl

40. Belted Kingfisher

41. Red-bellied Woodpecker

42. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

43. Downy Woodpecker

44. Blue Jay

45. Tree Swallow

46. Carolina Chickadee

47. House Wren

48. Golden-crowned Kinglet

49. Ruby-crowned Kinglet

50. Eastern Bluebird

51. Hermit Thrush

52. American Robin

53. Gray Catbird

54. Northern Mockingbird

55. European Starling

56. Cedar Waxwing

57. Yellow-rumped Warbler

58. Pine Warbler

59. Palm Warbler

60. Common Yellowthroat

61. Eastern Towhee

62. Chipping Sparrow

63. Nelson’s Short-tailed Sparrow

64. Song Sparrow

65. Swamp Sparrow

66. Northern Cardinal