Friday, May 06, 2011

Spring Bird Count 2011 (68th Anniversary!)

For many people in the world, I'm sure, spending a day counting birds probably is a serious waste of time and energy. Then other people would also say it's a waste of time to re-enact Civil War battles, chase a golf ball around a meadow, or entice fish into your boat. (Some of us would even suggest that a day spent earning money is a waste of time, too, since you can't take it with you. But, is it interesting that "counting" birds, "counting" the creel, "counting" the loot all have something in common?)

I recognize it is a luxury to be able to spend a few days of the month watching nature. I wonder what percentage of the world's population never, ever get such a chance.

Even if you're not serious about bird watching, or maybe not sure of your skills, the quarterly counts are fun. A good way to get to know other people and a hobby that gets you out of the house and out of town. And, very importantly, the counts provide information that concerns the health of the region and that concerns me (and you, too, I hope.) Nonetheless, it was a long day, it was fun, and I'm eager to know the results of the other parties in the other parts of the counties.

The Spring survey covers the six county area centered on Carter county. The club fielded 30 people in 6 groups. Our group formed into three teams: Joe McGuiness; Eric and Kathy Noblet; Kim Stroud and myself. The total species for the club were 152. Our trio of crews sighted 99. This was the 68th consecutive Spring count conducted by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter. (Every Spring since 1943! And you only thought a bunch of no-account hillbillies lived in these parts!) The 30-year average species counted is 145. The 10-year average is 150. The highest was in 2005 with 161 species.

Our particular region was Unicoi County which is just south of Washington County and butts against North Carolina. The high point (literally) is Unaka Mountain/ Beauty Spot where the AT and the border all run together and the lowest spot is at the wetlands where Unicoi County and Washington County run together. We counted almost every class of bird from whip-poor-will to green heron. The only families of birds that were counted that we didn't also count were loons, pelicans, gulls, and the rails.

Our big adventure of the spring count was to explore Rich Mountain looking for whip-poor-wills. The whip is nocturnal bird, likes large tracts of woods, and they're plentiful. But the home of choice seems to be where they do not get too much disturbance. In this case, way back up in the hills. We were surrounded by forest with only one forest road for access.

For a while all we heard was the train whistle and I had no clue about where it was coming from. The Clinchfield runs from Johnson City, to nearby Erwin, then at Chestoa (all these are on the e-maps) then enters the Nolichucky Gorge and doesn't re-emerge until Glendale, North Carolina. The gorge is a beautiful place and has lots of history in it and is about as remote as a spot there is just like Rich Mountain. (See "June 2010" below.)

We took Kim Stroud's 4x4 Ranger up the road which had some mud holes about the size of bomb craters and a few logs (one in particular made you duck.) A first-gear kind of road where you can go about two mile an hour. It's not that you couldn't take a car over the Rich Mountain road, many people have, but I don't see any good reason to abuse a car. My Ranger is a two-wheel drive, an automatic, and with 187K miles. I avoid these kinds of roads.

I suppose we left Erwin, Tenn., about 7:30-ish (by now we'd been at it 12 hours which is not all that long by some teams' standards) on State 107 towards Greeneville/Jonesborough, turned left after the Nolichucky River at Embreeville, take a right at the right fork unlike a right at the wrong fork (my mistake!) and look for a forest service road that normally you'd ignore, and eventually found a wide spot in the bend of the road where we could park out of harm's way, just as the sun was dropping over the ridge.

It wasn't even dark when the first three whips started up. And then a fourth in the opposite direction. We waited a while until it got really dark, counted a few more whips, and then started a very slow drive down the hill. Even in low gear, being an automatic, the truck wanted to surge as all automatics want to do. Being four-wheel, her truck steers heavy where my truck steers very light. But, Kim kept counting whips and soon we were at dozen. I have no idea where we were when met the Jeep, who was narrower than us, and was able to squeeze by.

Once back on the county road I took a detour up Graveyard Hill Road hoping mostly for an owl. Rather than hear one, we saw this interesting phenomenon of placing solar powered lights alongside gravestones. It is very eerie to encounter and I am still wondering why this is done.

I also couldn't tell you exactly where we stopped counting except we'd tallied 19 whip-poor-wills. It would have been so nice to get 20.


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