Counting Our Blessings

There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.

~Walt Streightiff

We had a wonderful holiday break this past week, spending time with and enjoying both families. The past few days we discussed some of the varied rituals of the holidays – specific foods for the season, making cookies with family, watching certain shows, listening to Christmas music, and Christmas Eve Mass. I guess I have a few rituals myself, although they are quite different from most.

Tundra swans in field

The weather for much of our Christmas Bird Count was cold, gray, and wet (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday was one of my favorites – the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Pungo. The count has been going on since I started it with my friend, Paris Trail, back in the mid 1980’s, and I have only missed a few in all those years. The count center is based at Pettigrew State Park and the standard 15-mile diameter circle encompasses all of the park (including 16,000+ acre Lake Phelps), acres of the surrounding farmland, and much of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  The weather turned out to be less than ideal with cloudy skies, various forms of precipitation, and temperatures hovering around 37 degrees most of the day. We drove the refuge roads for much of the morning as we were starting to question the sanity of our 4:30 a.m. departure from a warm bed back home. Though we ended up with fewer species than usual, we did share a few special moments with some of the usual suspects.

Tundra swans in field 1

A flock of tundra swans in a field along Pat’s Road at Pungo

Tundra swans in field crop

Apparently, there was a lot to discuss at the swan holiday gathering

On one of our circuits, we noticed several thousand tundra swans had gathered in the front fields to feed on waste corn and a nearby field of winter wheat sprouts. We pulled up, lowered the windows with rain sprinkling in, and took in the scene. Watching and listening to the swans somehow made it all worthwhile and reminded me of how much I love this place.

Snow geese landing on gray day

A large flock of snow geese landing to feed

Soon, scattered flocks of snow geese began to gather and circle the feeding swans. As the flocks coalesced into a huge swirl of black and white, we discussed the seeming inefficiency of snow goose behavior – circling a field for many minutes, using up precious energy, before finally settling down to feed. All the while, I was glassing the passing flock for the smaller cousins of snow geese, the Ross’s geese.

Injured snow goose

Snow goose profile showing longer beak with black “lip” line

It is fairly easy to spot a Ross’s goose on the edge of a flock of snow geese in a field – Ross’s geese are about 1/2 to 2/3 the size of all the other white birds and have a stubby bill that lacks the black “lips” of a snow goose. But I like to try to spot them in flight, which can be a bit more challenging. If the the two species are adjacent to one another, you can see the differences (even though Melissa thinks I am making all this up).

Comparison of Ross' and Snow Goose in flight

Can you spot the Ross’s geese in this photo?

Check out the photo above. There are two Ross’s geese mixed with 4.5 snow geese – remember, look for the smaller size and a short, stubby bill on the Ross’ geese. We ended the day with 7 Ross’s geese and about 30,000 snow geese (I’m sure there are a many more Ross’s geese on the refuge, but it can be tough to pick them out of the large flocks).

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warblers were our constant companions in forested areas of the refuge

A few other species were quite abundant this year – American robins by the hundreds, mallards, killdeer, and yellow-rumped warblers. These winter warblers are tiny balls of energy and they boldly surrounded us every time we pished along the forest edges.


Searching for American pipits in corn stubble can test your vision (how many do you see?)

I enjoy the challenge of finding certain species on these bird counts – a Ross’s goose hidden in a flock of thousands of snow geese, an elusive fox sparrow (no luck this year), an owl (we did flush a single great horned owl while walking in the woods), and the dirt-colored American pipits hidden in plain sight out in the plowed or cut fields (we found a nice flock in one field).

Four bald eagles

It was a good day for bald eagles (here are 4 of the 10 seen at this one point on the lake)

And there are always surprises. This year, the bald eagles put on quite a show. We started the morning with four in the fields as we entered the refuge. Later, in our one spot to view Pungo Lake, we had ten eagles in view, often taking turns knocking one another off of perches along the lake shore.

Red wolf track in mud

Fresh red wolf tracks

Our biggest surprise came with a quick sighting of a red wolf as it dashed across a dirt road and into a corn field, quickly disappearing into the dense stand. It turned out to be a very good day for mammals – white-tailed deer, river otter, nutria, a gray squirrel, and six bears rounded out our observations (along with plenty of huge bear scat as well as scat from bobcat and fox).

Resting swans

The sun finally made an appearance lat in the afternoon, warming these resting swans

Late in the day, the cold rains stopped, the dense clouds moved out, and the sun broke through, but the steady wind reminded us that this can be a very cold place. Walking on “Bear Road” at the end of the day reminded me of so many trips from my past – a sense of wildness and wide open spaces in this place that continues to provide natural wonders with each visit. The bad weather had driven most other visitors away, so we had the place to ourselves – again, a reminder of the the early years when, if I saw one other car on the refuge, it was a busy day.

Flying swans

Tundra swan flyover with sunset approaching

The golden glow of an approaching sunset illuminated the woods and caught the feathers of swans returning to the safety of the lake for another night. The only sounds were those of nature – swans calling, the deep drumming of a distant pileated woodpecker, the faint low hoot of a great horned owl.

sunset at Pungo

A fiery end to a chilly day

As we walked back toward our car, the western sky exploded in fire like it so often does here in winter. There are so many reasons I love this place. A big one is that it allows me the time and space to look around and appreciate the many wonders this world has to offer, if only we give it the chance. Help support our public lands – they are medicine for our souls.

half moom

There are many wonders in our world, just waiting for us to pause and enjoy

2017 Christmas Bird Count results (Pungo Unit only)

30,000 Snow Goose
7 Ross’s Goose
198 Canada Goose
22724 Tundra Swan
2 Wood Duck
20 Northern Shoveler
222 Gadwall
300 American Wigeon
229 Mallard
40 American Black Duck
10 Northern Pintail
3 Green-winged Teal
23 Ring-necked Duck
1 Bufflehead
12 Hooded Merganser
5 Great Blue Heron
9 Turkey Vulture
8 Northern Harrier
15 Bald Eagle
2 Red-tailed Hawk
1 American Coot
170 Killdeer
3 American Woodcock
26 Wilson’s Snipe
26 Ring-billed Gull
180 Mourning Dove
1 Great Horned Owl
2 Red-bellied Woodpecker
8 Downy Woodpecker
1 Hairy Woodpecker
5 Northern Flicker
3 Pileated Woodpecker
2 American Kestrel
6 Eastern Phoebe
1 Blue Jay
10 American Crow
5 Fish Crow
0 crow sp.
5 Carolina Chickadee
4 Tufted Titmouse
2 White-breasted Nuthatch
8 Carolina Wren
5 Ruby-crowned Kinglet
5 Eastern Bluebird
800 American Robin
1 Brown Thrasher
7 Northern Mockingbird
60 American Pipit
3 Palm Warbler
489 Yellow-rumped Warbler
357 White-throated Sparrow
28 Savannah Sparrow
18 Song Sparrow
9 Swamp Sparrow
6 Eastern Towhee
15 Northern Cardinal
900 Red-winged Blackbird

Christmas Bird Count

It’s never been easier to be a citizen scientist and it’s never been more important to be one.

~David Yarnold, President and CEO, National Audubon Society

Earlier this week, we participated in one of my favorite holiday traditions, the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. I helped start this particular count over 30 years ago when I was East District Naturalist for the NC State Parks System. My good friend, and naturalist extraordinaire, Paris Trail, was the count coordinator. The Pettigrew Count is centered on Lake Phelps and the standard 15-mile diameter count circle includes surrounding farmlands and forests as well as a portion of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It is that latter portion that I have counted in for all these many years. This year, it was officially just Melissa and I, although we did run into some of her museum co-workers and another excellent young birder that helped us with a couple of species we missed seeing (most notably the merlin and American bittern).


Swans on Marsh A 1

Tundra swans are very abundant again this year on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Swans on Marsh A 2

Swans on the marsh impoundment on the Pungo Unit

The day began with clouds and warm temperatures, but the skies soon cleared, and we had another of those crazy “Christmas” counts with temperatures soaring to the low 70’s. Tundra swans were the bird of the day and we estimated about 14,000 on the lake, although I am guessing this may be an underestimate based on the tremendous flyovers at sunset.

Swans flying

Tundra swan flyover

Swans were literally everywhere  – in the fields, on the lake, in the impoundments, and in the sky. And I must admit, I could watch and listen to them all day. In fact, I did on the day after the count (more on that in a future post).

box turtle on bird count

Eastern box turtle out for  stroll on the Christmas Bird Count

The warm temperatures made for some unusual companions for a Christmas Bird Count. There were plenty of aquatic turtles sunning themselves in the canals (which is not really all that unusual on sunny days in winter) plus an Eastern box turtle we helped off the road. There were also several buckeye butterflies, a Carolina anole, and Melissa spotted a very active bee hive high up in a tree.

Bee hive in tree

Bee hive in a knothole

If you look closely, you can see where bears have clawed around the hole trying to get at the tasty treat inside. Not sure what these bees were foraging on, although I did see a few henbit weeds in bloom along the edge of the road.

Snow geese leaving Pungo Lake

Snow geese flying out of Pungo Lake

The snow geese continue their pattern of erratic and unpredictable behavior of the past few years, with a much reduced flock splitting up and flying off the refuge in different directions to feed. Perhaps when the remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down, they will provide a brief display of massive flocks coming into feed as in past years.

Black and white warbler

A black-and-white warbler was one of our highlights for the day

We managed to spot quite a few species (76 in our portion of the count circle – see our complete list below) with a few that are not regularly seen, including a black-and-white warbler, an orange-crowned warbler, a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers, and a peregrine falcon chasing a duck.

sandhill cranes at Pungo

A trio of sandhill cranes closed out our day

My favorite species of the day came just as the sun was setting. I looked up and saw what I first thought were three great blue herons flying in tight formation. That unusual pattern caused me to take a second look and I could see the outstretched necks that indicated something other than herons – three sandhill cranes! This is the second Christmas count over the years where we have spotted these magnificent birds. A great way to close out another wonderful day spent in our favorite place.

Swans at sunset

Pair of tundra swans against an orange sky at sunset

December 27, 2016 dataPungo Unit portion of annual Pettigrew State Park Christmas Bird Count (76 species for our team; 109 species for the total count circle with one team report still out):

Snow Goose – 12,000
Ross’s Goose – 5
Canada Goose – 54
Tundra Swan – 14,107
Wood Duck – 8
Gadwall – 22
American Wigeon – 3
American Black Duck – 45
Mallard – 98
Northern Shoveler – 52
Northern Pintail – 3
Ring-necked Duck –1
Lesser Scaup – 1
Hooded Merganser – 20
Bufflehead – 4
Pied-billed Grebe – 4
American Bittern – 1
Great Blue Heron – 3
Sandhill Crane – 3
Turkey Vulture – 47
Black vulture – 2
Bald Eagle – 7
Northern Harrier – 11
Cooper’s Hawk – 1
Sharp-shinned hawk – 2
Red-shouldered Hawk – 1
Red-tailed Hawk – 4
American Kestrel – 4
Merlin – 1
Peregrine Falcon – 1
American Coot – 45
Killdeer – 48
American Woodcock – 3
Wilson’s Snipe – 3
Ring-billed Gull – 73
Mourning Dove – 21
Red-bellied Woodpecker – 8
Downy Woodpecker – 2
Hairy Woodpecker – 1
Northern Flicker – 12
Pileated Woodpecker – 6
Eastern Phoebe – 7
Blue Jay – 5
American Crow – 9
Fish Crow – 18
Tree swallow – 2
Carolina Chickadee – 10
Tufted Titmouse – 2
Brown-headed Nuthatch – 1
Carolina Wren – 15
House Wren – 2
Marsh Wren – 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – 2
Golden-crowned Kinglet – 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 7
Eastern Bluebird – 13
American Robin – 768
Gray Catbird – 2
Brown Thrasher – 1
Northern Mockingbird – 5
European Starling – 22
Black-and-white Warbler – 1
Orange-crowned Warbler – 1
Common Yellowthroat – 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler – 300
Eastern Towhee – 5
Savannah Sparrow – 9
Chipping Sparrow – 15
Song Sparrow – 35
Swamp Sparrow – 6
White-throated Sparrow – 30
Northern Cardinal – 25
Red-winged Blackbird – 855
Eastern Meadowlark – 13
Common Grackle – 5
American Goldfinch – 14



Counting Birds

We can never have enough of nature.

~Henry David Thoreau

Snow Geese landing

Snow Geese landing in field at Pocosin Lakes NWR (click photos to enlarge)

For me, I suppose that quote could be altered to, I can never have enough of winter wildlife in eastern North Carolina. Okay, not as poetic for sure, but true nonetheless. Why else would I (and 6 other bird nerds and friends) spend all day out in the brutally cold wind and mud at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge? Well, another reason is that we were one team participating in the annual ritual known as the Pettigrew State Park Christmas Bird Count. I helped start this particular bird count about 30 years ago when I worked for the state park system and I have managed to attend almost every one since.

This year is the 115th for the National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts. The concept was born in 1900 when Frank Chapman, a noted ornithologist, and 26 other people went out and counted birds in 25 locations, mainly in the northeast United States. The idea was to offer an alternative to the practice of Christmas “side” hunts practiced at the time, where people would go out on Christmas Day and shoot as many birds (and often other wildlife) as they could, whether they had a use for them or not. Conservationists were concerned about this, and other practices, and the general decline in bird species, and thought the counts would be a good way to bring attention to the plight of birds. From those humble beginnings, the Christmas Bird Counts are now the longest-running citizen science program, with over 71,000 people participating in over 2,300 count circles in the Western Hemisphere. Data from these counts provides scientists with all sorts of useful information on population trends, range expansions over time, and other information on a wide range of bird species.

Watching birds

Looking for a Ross’s Goose amidst the thousands of Snow Geese

Participants try to identify and count all the birds within a chosen 15-mile diameter circle on a assigned day during the period from December 14 to January 5 each year. The Pettigrew Count is centered on the state park and includes surrounding farmlands and forests as well as a portion of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes NWR. Teams of volunteers go out before dawn and bird their portion of the count circle all day, keeping track of everything they see and can identify by sound. Obviously, we do not record every single bird that is actually in the count circle that day (especially in areas like the refuge, where portions are closed to public entry to protect the wildlife from disturbance), and there are challenges with estimating the numbers of large flocks, and in trying to not to count birds more than once. But, one of the benefits of having some of the same people do the count each year is that the results will be somewhat consistent, enough that trends in the data over time can be seen. This year, our team consisted of three beginning birders, two experienced birders that had been on this count many times, and two young, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable birders that had never been on this particular count.

Snow Geese blasting off from field

Snow Geese blasting off from field

One of our highlights on this count is the huge numbers of Snow Geese that roost on Pungo Lake and feed in nearby farm fields. The birds have been a little less predictable the past couple of years and they continued that trend this year, with the huge flock breaking up into smaller flocks and dispersing in varied directions during the day. We did find a flock of a couple of thousand feeding in the fields near the refuge entrance, and then began the sometimes long process of trying to pick out some Ross’s Geese from the flock. Ross’s Geese look like miniature Snow Geese, and can be tough to spot when there are thousands of their look-alike cousins in a field. But, with the gusty winds holding the birds up in the air longer as they landed and slowing down their flight, we were able to spot many of the smaller Ross’s Geese in in the air, and, in fact, got our highest number ever (23) for this portion of the count circle.

Mute and Tundra Swans

Immature Mute Swan (left) compared to adult Tundra Swan (right)

Other highlights included the first Cackling Geese (look like small Canada Geese) we have ever recorded on this portion of the count and an immature Mute Swan. The latter has been hanging out in one of the impoundments at Pungo for a few weeks. It is much larger than the usual Tundra Swans, and immature birds have a pink bill and lack the large knob on the bill that is diagnostic of adult Mute Swans. At first, I really wanted to make this bird an immature Trumpeter Swan, but I guess I will have to go with the consensus of it being a Mute.

Bear trail

Walking on a bear trail

Another highlight was walking through the woods looking for mixed species flocks, and traveling through the underbrush on a well-used bear trail. We did see seven bears along that trail, including two resting high up in trees (always a thrill to see). Added to those non-bird sightings were soaring Bald Eagles, a Cooper’s Hawk dive bombing some robins and a Wood Duck, the flash of a Merlin as it streaked overhead, and tens of thousands of Snow Geese coming into the lake at sunset, and you can see why the day was memorable, in spite of the bitter cold. One of the most memorable moments was when I asked the young birders (and these guys are both passionate and skilled) how they first got into birding. They both gave some of the credit to a trip I had helped lead to this very refuge when they were with the museum’s Junior Curator Program. They recalled walking down this same dirt road, seeing bears, and thousands of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans flying over, the vastness of the place, and the amazing sounds, as one of the things that inspired their passion. What a great way to start a new year…and to help me make a resolution to help get more people, especially young people, out into nature to discover their own passion.


December 30, 2014 data – Pungo Unit portion of annual Pettigrew State Park Christmas Bird Count (70 species for our team; 110 species for the total count circle):

Snow Goose – 45,000
Ross’s Goose – 23
Cackling Goose – 5
Canada Goose – 250
Tundra Swan – 2000
Mute Swan – 1
Wood Duck – 150
Gadwall – 50
American Wigeon – 40
American Black Duck – 10
Mallard – 225
Northern Shoveler – 40
Northern Pintail – 40
Green-winged Teal – 17
Ring=necked Duck – 50
Lesser Scaup – 7
Hooded Merganser – 12
Northern Bobwhite – 8
Pied-billed Grebe – 1
Great Blue Heron – 7
Turkey Vulture – 22
Bald Eagle – 18
Northern Harrier – 15
Cooper’s Hawk – 3
Red-shouldered Hawk – 2
Red-tailed Hawk – 6
American Kestrel – 5
Merlin – 1
Peregrine Falcon – 1
American Coot – 8
Killdeer – 46
American Woodcock – 3
Ring-billed Gull – 403
Mourning Dove – 370
Belted Kingfisher – 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker – 21
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – 1
Downy Woodpecker – 15
Northern Flicker – 6
Pileated Woodpecker – 6
Eastern Phoebe – 2
Blue Jay – 1
American Crow – 50
Fish Crow – 2
Carolina Chickadee – 20
Tufted Titmouse – 5
Brown-headed Nuthatch – 1
Brown Creeper – 1
Carolina Wren – 3
Golden-crowned Kinglet – 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 3
Eastern Bluebird – 2
Hermit Thrush – 1
American Robin – 800
Gray Catbird – 2
Northern Mockingbird – 1
American Pipit – 104
Yellow-rumped Warbler – 400
Eastern Towhee – 10
Savannah Sparrow – 20
Fox Sparrow – 5
Song Sparrow – 20
Swamp Sparrow – 6
White-throated Sparrow – 30
Dark-eyed Junco – 7
Northern Cardinal – 15
Red-winged Blackbird – 3200
Eastern Meadowlark – 13
Common Grackle – 25
American Goldfinch – 21