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

When the North Wind Blows

I went camping last weekend with some friends at Pettigrew State Park and the weather decided to change dramatically during our stay. Saturday was relatively warm and overcast and we just missed the last of the rain when we arrived at the park around noon.

water drops on poplar leaf on ground

Water drops on fallen leaf (click photos to enlarge)

Everything was slightly wet as we set up camp, and there were insects and spiders moving about. That would all change by nightfall.

Gulls at the bar

Gallery of gulls in winter attire – Laughing Gull, Forster’s Tern, Ring-billed Gull

After setting up tents we did a quick check of the boat ramp and found some Hooded Mergansers, Ring-necked and Ruddy Ducks out on Lake Phelps and a gallery of gulls hanging out on the railing. The rest of the afternoon was spent over at the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge looking for anything that might be out and about. We spotted a few bears at a distance and then saw what at first looked like a sleeping bear near the refuge maintenance area.

Roadkill bear

Dead young bear

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a dead young bear and it had not been dead long.

Rear foot of dead bear

Hind foot of dead bear

While sad, it did offer a rare opportunity to closely observe a bear. It probably weighed about 75 pounds, meaning it was probably born a year ago. One foot was turned so we could examine the soft texture of the pad. We were puzzled by what might have happened, but after talking with refuge staff on my return, they thought it was probably hit by a car. Regrettably, we had seen another, much larger, roadkill bear on our way down alongside Hwy 64…a cautionary note for drivers in bear country, especially after dark, when a large black animal is very difficult to see.

As sunset approached we headed out and were greeted by a flyover of thousands of Tundra Swans and the first Snow Geese of the season. The arrival of the strong cold front may have been the push needed by the birds to complete their migration to their wintering grounds here in North Carolina. In one of the long V-shaped formations of swans, there was one lone Snow Goose flying in line along with his much larger cousins from the far north – the first time any of us had ever seen a mixture of these two birds in formation.

During the night, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped precipitously. By daybreak it was bone-chilling cold with a stiff persistent wind out of the northwest – the perfect Pungo wildlife day.

Male Northern Harrier

Male Northern Harrier hunting in a stiff wind

One advantage of a steady breeze is that it slows down the flight speed of many birds (at least those heading into the wind) and gives you a chance to watch and photograph them. Such was the case with a ghostly male Northern Harrier battling the stiff wind as he hunted the roadside ditches. If only another car had not come along, we might have stayed with this soaring hunter and grabbed some memorable images.

Bear tooth marks on sweet gum

Bear tooth marks on Sweetgum

Hiking down one of the dirt roads on the refuge we began seeing lots of bear sign. Many of the trees in the area have claw marks from bears climbing them. But many of the larger Sweetgum trees have another distinctive mark – sections of bark ripped off near the base of the trunk with teeth marks left behind as the bears scrape away the sugar-rich cambium layer.

Fungus on bear scat

Fungus on bear scat

There was also an abundance of another bear sign – piles of scat. And much of the scat was odd-looking because of a hairy fungus growing on top. Although I have seen this before, I don’t remember seeing so many scat piles covered in the Chia Pet-type growth. A quick search on the web revealed the fungus is probably one in the genus Phycomyces. This fungus is related to bread mold and is one of the first to grow on substrates that are high in sugar. The hairs are the sporangiophores and each is tipped with a tiny sphere full of spores.

Bear on Bear Rd

Female Black Bear on “bear road”

It wasn’t long until we encountered something with hair of a different color – a Black Bear. It was a medium-sized adult bear who came out of the woods between myself and my friends a hundred yards or so down the road. She came out cautiously, frequently glancing back in the woods. We all thought she was probably not alone, and, sure enough, a young bear soon followed. I thought they were going to cross over into the nearby corn field, but she slowly meandered my way.

Bear standing on bear rd 1

Female bear stands up to sniff and look around

The stiff wind may hamper a bear’s ability to use its keenest environmental sensor, its nose. The young bear disappeared back into the woods and the adult soon stood up to look around and probably try to ascertain if the coast was clear. She probably could sense us, but maybe could not get a direction on the scent. She soon dropped down and ambled off to join her young one.

Log with stripped bark

This log had a bear on it stripping the bark

Cold, windy weather often offers good wildlife watching opportunities on the refuge as animals tend to get hungrier and more active during the day. After walking a few miles on various dirt roads, we encountered two bears off in the woods atop a leaning tree that had broken near the base. We sat and watched for about 20 minutes while the female gingerly pulled off chunks of bark and appeared to lick or bite at something underneath. After they ambled off into the thick undergrowth, we went over to check out the tree.

Grubs being eaten by bear

Beetle grubs under the bark

We quickly found what the large bear was so gently picking off the log – a variety of beetle grubs hidden under the bark. Grubs must be a bruin delicacy as evidenced by the amount of log rolling and stripping of bark that can be found on almost any downed tree in these woods.

Bear sitting in corn field

Large Black Bear feeding in corn field

After several more bear sightings we finished our beary good day with a large bear coming out of the woods and feeding in the corn field as we sat and watched nearby. It walked in and sat down, grabbing an ear of corn and feeding on it while sitting and looking around.

Bear carrying ear of corn

Bear carrying ear of corn

Occasionally, the bear would pick up an ear off the ground and carry it a ways before sitting and eating. We finally got up to leave and were greeted by another bear with two young, and then three more on the way back to the car. An amazing day in an amazing place. The final amazement came in the form of a beautiful sky with literally thousands of swans calling and filing by overhead as they made their way back to their critical resting spot on the lake. This short video gives you a sense of what it is like in this magical place.

I will be leading several trips this winter to this area both on weekends and during week days to observe wildlife and learn abut the importance of this and other refuges as critical wildlife habitat. If interested in attending one of these trips, please contact me at my email address or via my Facebook page. While there are no guarantees on seeing so much wildlife, it is a place that never disappoints me.