Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for 2010

The 68th consecutive Christmas bird count for Carter County, Tenn., is official. We didn't snowed out as much as darked out. (Ran out of daylight.) Our group had 50 species for 49 miles and about eight hours of driving (Don Holt at the helm, Diane Draper, Kim Stroud, Kathy Noblett, and Charles Moore all back-seat drivers).

We were worried that we'd not make an average of about 40 species. And at times some lone individual would pop up without a host of partners that we expected. For example, we counted a Cedar waxwing early and then later in the afternoon found a flock. It would have been weird to report "one Cedar waxwing." But these things happen. We found a lone Great blue heron and just about missed it. Our water fowl and Bald eagle came within minutes and less than a mile of each other.

As usual, for any count, the starlings out winged everything on the order thousands. They've become a nuisance bird, to say the least.

But, just one more species that the other five groups didn't also have and we'd topped out at 80 species for the count. An all-time new high species! As it was we hit 79 for the day, tied with two other years. The average is 70 species over the last 30 years. That's pretty good!


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Weather Outside is Delightful

Not hardly. We don't get freezing rain often in East Tennessee so this week is looking towards the unusual. The storm that racked the northern half of the US rained over the southern Cresent states but we're kind of in the middle.

Ice and rain are in the forecast for Thursday. We are just about to get rid of the snow from the weekend. It's been cold. Very cold. Not above 32 degrees for several days. Cabin fever sets in rather quickly.

East Tennessee State University, which was closed on Monday (this is Wednesday night) and extended finals until Friday, has announced it will start late on Thursday. (My final in Astronomy is 1:20, Thursday.) This is very strange because for years school was never canceled in the Fall semester. At the risk of repeating myself, the only time in recent history before about 2004 that we were closed in the Fall semester was 9/11 and 9/12. Since 2004, we have closed I think once or twice in the Fall. The Spring semesters have always been a problem with weather. We catch humid air up this side (west) of the southern Appalachians, produced by a high off the Georgia coast, with the still cold air coming down from the midwest, a low climbing up the Ohio River, and the result is a wet, heavy dump of snow. It doesn't last long. The air temperature will warm quickly, if not overnight. But the snow is deep and the ground cold so it takes a day or two of intense warmth to melt the snow cover. (Because snow is reflective sunshine isn't much help in itself. Warm concrete goes a long ways.) Sometimes it's not freezing at ground level. But, it sure screws up the school systems for a day.

All this means that bird watching is sometimes very dependent upon the weather. We're scheduled for the winter count on Saturday, Dec. 18, and the Roan Mountain count on Sunday. With enough rain, the birds hide and we'll have a time of it to get them to come out and play. If the weather is bad enough this weekend, it won't be the first time the counts have been delayed. There's a week or two window leeway.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Woodpecker Neighbors

I have an old bird house hanging from a hickory, along my side street (I live on a corner). The top is warped to a permanently open position and the wood is badly weathered. I should take it down and replace it. With luck and new house, then, maybe somebody would take up residence.

Today, I heard a downy woodpecker busily banging away over on that side of the property. From the kitchen door, I saw him working the hole and the overhang of that old birdhouse. I went out later and examined the birdhouse but couldn't tell he'd accomplished much. There couldn't have been much in the dried lumber for him to eat.

Once upon a time, a Maple that stood about 40 feet from the back porch that came down in a wind storm. It wasn't all that old of a tree but apparently Maples aren't the strongest tree in the forest. It was tall enough that the top limbs brushed up against the back door. We cut the trunk down to ground level but in a year it rotted into a hole. One day, I was standing by the back door and could see a little movement just over the edge of the hole. This chunk of wood came flying out and another and then, this crazy, red-headed, wide-eyed, scared looking woodpecker, with a big crest, poked it's head up, looked around to be sure there weren't any cats close, and got back to digging up the trunk and roots. It was the first Pileated woodpecker I'd ever seen.

I thought perhaps the downy was, in the modern vocabulary, "making noises."  Woodpeckers, I understand, drum for mates. It's a regular percussion section sometimes. I have all the major woodpeckers in the yard at various times and have on many occasions rushed out of the house to see if I can spy a Pileated hammering on an old log in the back. I have also charged out in rage at a sapsucker banging away at the gutter or downspout.

Several years ago I was crossing campus and surprised to hear a sapsucker beating on the metal cover of the parking lot light. It sounded like someone was beating on garbage can lid. While it might not hurt them to do all this noise making, in my mind's eye I sort of saw him pausing, coming up for breath. Wishing for some sign of success!

Sort of natural version of ghetto blasting.


Saturday, December 04, 2010

Nearing Christmas

The first accumulation of snow is expected this weekend. We've had dustings and rain so far. I have started feeding in the backyard. Sunflower seeds. I have decided to give up the fight against the squirrels and let 'em feast. Seed is cheap. We've had robins, chickadees, crows, bluejays, white breasted nuthatch, and titmouse in the neighborhood. My holly has berries and the cardinals and winter wrens have been coming in it to feed, perhaps, or hide. The holly is in front of my kitchen window and over the years I have had some great views of birds and a few nests. I hope nobody minds Christmas lights. (I bought a package of the solar powered lights. I like the concept but maybe it's just more "lights.") And as much as I like my holly, across the street is a Golden Pyracantha that is gorgeous! We had some of our heaviest snows in recent years last January and we might be just as lucky again this year. We also set, I think, a record last winter for most consecutive days below 32 degrees. Not a lot of fun but survivable.

The crows have been going crazy the last couple of days. It's like "The Birds." I go out in the morning and they seem to be everywhere and very noisy. As if they know something I don't? Probably. 

About two-three weeks ago the starlings were at their maximum. As I was driving I could see these huge flocks of Starlings doing a twisting and diving maneuver that flashed these huge commas and apostrophes in the sky. I think several other drivers were also distracted. I had never seen such a sight.

The winter bird counts are just around the corner. For the Herndon Chapter, the winter count is December 18, Saturday, and I think this is the five county count. Sunday, December 19, is the Roan Mountain winter count. Details at The winter water fowl are in and ready to sit still for counting.

This is the time of year when the counts are slim. But surprising. Last year it snowed to beat the band and we had a bald eagle at Watauga Lake. For what should have been a minimalist count we did pretty good. It helps to have a crew of five, too.