How Many Birds?

Now Bird-Lore proposes a new kind of Christmas side hunt, in the form of a Christmas bird-census. We hope that all our readers who have the opportunity will aid us in making it a success by spending a portion of Christmas Day with the birds and sending a report of their ‘hunt’ to Bird-Lore before they retire that night.

~Frank Chapman, originator of the Christmas Bird Count, 1900

It was a tradition in the late 1800’s for men and boys to gather into teams during the holidays and go out into the woods and fields and shoot as many birds, mammals, and other critters as they could find. Whichever team killed the most wildlife was the winner. These so-called side hunts often took a huge toll on local wildlife including many species of songbirds. In the winter of 1900, out of concern for the wanton destruction of so many birds, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History, proposed an alternative – gather together and count birds instead of shooting them. He published the results of the first count in his magazine, Bird-Lore, which later became Audubon magazine. That first census had 27 volunteers in 25 locations in the U.S. and Canada, and tallied a total of about 90 species across all the counts. That tradition became what is now the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, with over 81,000 observers in 2646 count circles (participants divide up a set 15-mile diameter circle and estimate the total number of birds in that area) participating in the Americas in 2019. They tallied more than 42 million birds representing more than 2500 different species. This is the longest running citizen science wildlife census in the world and the collected data is used by scientists and conservation organizations for bird research and protection efforts.

So, as we have done for most of the past several years, this past week, we headed east the day before our count centered on Pettigrew State Park, and spent the night at the campground so we would be out early the next morning. Our portion of the count circle is the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, about a 40 minute drive from the campground, even though it is only about 8 miles as the soon-to-be-counted crow flies. The afternoon before the count was rewarding with lots of swans, Snow Geese, and more visitors than usual. We even ran into some friends that were watching five Sandhill Cranes feeding in a cornfield near the refuge entrance.

The sunset show the night before our Christmas Bird Count was spectacular with a cloud of Snow Geese swirling over the field (click photos to enlarge)

The next morning, we headed out before sunrise and arrived at Pungo as the birds were beginning to stir. We headed to a marsh impoundment to eat breakfast and search through the couple of thousand Tundra Swans for the Trumpeter Swan we had seen a few weeks before. Unfortunately, we neither saw nor heard this rare species, so it eluded us for our tally this year.

One of several raptors we observed on the count day, this Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) was searching the nearby marsh for a potential meal

As visitors started arriving at the marsh, we decided to head over to the observation platform to estimate the swan numbers on the lake. We were in for a nice surprise in the canal next to the platform – an American Bittern! Somehow, we missed it as we drove in and parked, but Melissa spotted it alongside the canal when we climbed the platform.

Pungo Lake was dotted with Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) and a dense line of Snow Geese (Chen caerulescens) on the far side

I eased down to the truck and grabbed my camera, and for several minutes the bittern provided us with a close up view of its hunting style and funky, neck-weaving movements through the grasses. Its long toes help support it as it strides atop aquatic vegetation and the striped neck helps it blend in to the grasses it calls home. This is a species we see occasionally at this refuge but one that is particularly welcome on count day. We told a friend about it later that day, and when he went to see it, there were two bitterns!

When we climbed to the top of the observation platform, Melissa whispered, There’s a bittern right there
The bittern begins to assume the pose – Nothing but us marsh grasses here, move on…
I have told people when looking for bitterns, to look for a clump of grass that has eyes
The bittern ignored our nearby vehicle and strutted through the marsh grasses searching for prey
One of the things I find fascinating about bitterns is their neck wriggle, which is particularly noticeable when they slink through the grass

The day turned out much warmer than the previous one, and the good weather brought out all sorts of unusual wildlife (for December anyway). We saw a lot of spider silk floating through the air and a large adult orbweaver. And at one point, we were startled by a huge water snake along the edge of a canal. But, though we looked, “our” canebreak rattlesnake was not at its long-time hollow tree den site.

Can’t remember ever seeing a large Spotted Orbweaver (Neoscoma domiciliorum) on a Christmas Bird Count in the past
Walking in the woods on a very well used bear trail
Surprised to see a very large Brown Water Snake (Nerodia taxispilota) out and about (although it looks like it had just emerged from a muddy retreat and it was very sluggish)

We have a disadvantage in getting a true assessment of the number of birds in this location because so many areas are closed to access when the waterfowl are present. And on this count day, we had an even bigger problem – crowds (not something we want during this time of Covid). The weather, the holidays, and perhaps weariness of being trapped inside during the pandemic, brought out a lot of visitors. Unfortunately, many of them were not obeying the rules. We saw multiple groups of people walking into closed areas, resulting in some disturbance to the birds and actually reducing the numbers of birds we saw and counted (especially ducks). Several times during the day, we attempted some on-site education about refuge rules and Melissa finally texted the refuge law enforcement person to make them aware of the unusual number of violations. I understand the desire to get closer to the birds to see them, and I actually wish the refuge had more accessible observation areas around the lake (maybe some day), but rules is rules, and the number of people ignoring or missing the signage for closed areas was the most I have ever witnessed.

We still ended the day with a reasonable number of birds. Compared to previous years, there were fewer duck species and fewer swan numbers (one area that was packed with swans had all the birds flushed by people walking in on them as we were approaching). Obviously, when counting birds in such a large area that has so much inaccessible habitat (dense pocosin vegetation, closed areas to protect the waterfowl, and flooded forests), we are only getting a sampling of the total number and types of birds present. But, the value is in looking at these trends over time and seeing changes. One notable change has been the number of Bald Eagles observed since I started the count back in the mid-1980’s. Back then, seeing one eagle in the entire count circle was a big deal. We had 3 just in our portion this day. Our complete list for our portion of the count circle is at the end of this post. Overall, the Pettigrew Count did pretty well, with some unusual species recorded in other sections (including Short-eared Owls, a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and some Evening Grosbeaks).

We camped that night back at the park and decided to run by the Pungo Unit the next morning before heading home. The Snow Geese were right on schedule, flying out from the lake about 8 a.m. to feed in the fields, and we were one of only two cars to witness it (what a difference a day makes).

Snow Geese setting their wings for a landing
The morning after the count, the Snow Geese gave us a great show, coming and going to the fields for corn. A Bald Eagle flew over part of the field, resulting in this classic blast off (sound on)

We went back to the platform, hoping to see the bittern(s) again, but no luck. However, we did have a nice encounter with a Beaver swimming in one of the canals. It didn’t seem to mind us slowly following along in our truck, but then it suddenly went under and disappeared when four River Otters showed up. Not a bad way to end a trip to our favorite wildlife watching destination.

Checklist of species for our portion of the Pettigrew Christmas Bird Count:

Snow Goose – 20,000; Ross’ Goose – 2; Canada Goose – 45; Tundra Swan – 10,000; Wood Duck – 3; Northern Shoveler – 40; Gadwall – 2; American Black Duck – 35; Green-winged Teal – 124; Ring-necked Duck – 6; Bufflehead – 6; Ruddy Duck – 13; Great Blue Heron – 6; Sandhill Crane – 4 (not sure where the fifth guy from the day before and after was); American Bittern – 2; Pied-billed Grebe – 1: American Coot – 6: Northern Bobwhite – 4; Wild Turkey – 8; Killdeer – 52; Ring-billed Gull – 3; Mourning Dove – 70; Turkey Vulture – 21; Northern Harrier – 4; Cooper’s Hawk – 1; Bald Eagle – 3; Red-shouldered Hawk – 2; Red-tailed Hawk – 1; American Kestrel – 1; Belted Kingfisher – 1; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – 1; Red-bellied Woodpecker – 11; Downy Woodpecker – 4; Hairy Woodpecker – 3; Pileated Woodpecker – 3; Northern Flicker – 7; Eastern Phoebe – 12; Blue-headed Vireo – 3; Blue Jay – 1; American Crow – 24; Carolina Chickadee – 18; Tufted Titmouse – 5; Tree Swallow – 15; Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 4; Red-breasted Nuthatch – 1; Brown-headed Nuthatch – 3; House Wren – 1; Carolina Wren – 10; Gray Catbird – 8; Northern Mockingbird – 9; Brown Thrasher – 1; Eastern Bluebird – 6; American Robin – 48; Purple Finch – 5; American Goldfinch – 13; Song Sparrow – 39; White-throated Sparrow – 86; Savannah Sparrow – 87; Field Sparrow – 1; Swamp Sparrow – 8; Eastern Towhee – 1; Eastern Meadowlark – 10; Red-winged Blackbird – 1000; Rusty Blackbird – 8; Common Grackle – 10; Palm Warbler – 4; Yellow-rumped Warbler – 67; Pine Warbler – 2; Northern Cardinal – 20

18 thoughts on “How Many Birds?

  1. Your blog and photos are a treasure and I delight when I find on in my inbox. I have never been to Pocosin and Pongo but really want to go. Definitely on my destination list. What is involved in going with you? And I am not sure of your name but am a big fan of you and Melissa’s travels and photos. When will you be taking groups again and/or any tips would be so welcome.
    Miriam Lieberman

    • Hi Miriam…I probably will not lead tours this year due to the pandemic, but hopefully again next year. Would be happy to discuss the ins and outs of a trip down there with you via email (roadsendnaturalist@gmail.com).

    • Thanks, Mary Kay. I am hoping to do more video but our currently slow internet (we are supposed to be getting decent service later this spring in this “neighborhood”) prevents me from uploading much more than short clips.

  2. Mike,I wonder what your last name is? I can’t find it on your website.Your blog is great.Sue CloutierNew Salem, MA

  3. Wow! Love to hear your Christmas count.
    What fields were the RWBB’s gravitating to this time? I did not see any there 4 weeks ago.

  4. Nice bittern pics and video! Yeah, what’s up with the neck wriggle? I’ve seen Great Egrets do it too. It obviously doesn’t change the orientation of the head, so it’s not giving them a better vantage. Is there any science on this?

  5. Your posts and pictures are making me even more excited for my upcoming visit! I do have a concern that I’m hoping you might be able to address since you are so familiar with the area. The day I am visiting Pungo is calling for a good chance of rain and I’m seeing a lot of posts about muddy roads. Is it possible to get to a place to see the birds in a non 4 wheel drive vehicle? Am also visiting Mattamuskeet and Alligator River the next day. Thanks for any info you can provide!

    • The roads can, indeed, be quite muddy and scary-looking after rains. My comments are in reference to this refuge map – https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pubs/PungoMap.pdf (print one out as the kiosk was out of maps last week). Swans and snow geese can often be found in the fields off Pat’s Road (which is paved). The snow geese have been coming into feed about 8 a.m. and again about 4:45 p.m. If additional corn is knocked down in other fields on the refuge, they may change their locations. Best swan viewing is at #4 (Marsh A) on the map. D-Canal Road isn’t too bad, even in rain. But, there are a couple of bad spots on West Lake and South Lake Roads, so just be careful. Most big puddles are shallow and have sturdy bottoms, but there are a few now that are getting deeper ruts and can be tricky if it is raining that day. I would say South Lake Road is in the worst shape now, so avoid that if you can. There are a lot of swans along D-Canal but they are in a closed area, so view them only from the road. Good luck! A reminder there are no restrooms on the Pungo Unit and Visitor Center is closed at Mattamuskeet due to Covid.

      • Thank you so much for the info! Really didn’t want to cancel the trip so unless the forecast changes drastically, will try and give it a go! I will definitely abide by the rules. 😀

  6. Mike, as usual it’s always great to hear about Mellissa and your adventures. This one was interesting to hear about the Christmas count – especially love the Bittern. Too bad about the visitors who don’t know how to behave.

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