Christmas Bird Counts
Every year, birders look forward to the holiday season for more than just gift giving, as Christmastime means Christmas Bird Count (CBC) season! Way back when ‘birding’ meant shooting as many birds as you could with a shotgun, a group of early conservationists from the Audubon Society came up with the idea to count birds rather than collect them during the Christmas season. 116 years later in 2016, the Christmas Bird Count tradition continues as an annual bird census, and stands as the longest-running citizen science project in the Americas! The data collected by bird watching citizen scientists provides invaluable insights into bird population changes, as the censusing protocol treats all areas equally, regardless of their habitat.
In a CBC, a 15-mile diameter circle is drawn and divided into smaller territories, each of which are surveyed by individual birders or a birding party. The map on the right by Anthony Gonzon shows the Middletown, Delaware CBC circle; the large body of water running through the map from top to bottom is the Delaware River, and the border between Area 2A and Area 2B is the C&D Canal. Our team, composed of myself, prominent birder and Delmarva Ornithological Society President Bill Stewart, and Hannah Greenberg, was assigned the western half of Area 2B. While I have birded the eastern side of this territory, which contains birding hotspots like the Augustine Wildlife Area and Port Penn Impoundments, I had never been to the western side. This is what makes CBCing so fun– because you’re taking a census of the birds within a territory, you end up birding locations like retention ponds and in-progress housing developments that you would never otherwise step foot in.
The Middletown CBC
Hannah and I met up with Bill bright and early at 8am along the southern edge of the C&D Canal. The warm 65 degree weather and recent rain spells meant a dense fog had settled in the valley, making anything above the treetops or more than 50ft away invisible. Lucky for us, the conditions meant the birds were unusually active– hundreds of American Robins were singing their dawn song and emitting anxious ‘tut-tut’ notes while flying from treetop to treetop. Mixed in were the ‘chat’ and dinosaur-like squeaky calls from endless flocks of Common Grackles passing overhead. A Pileated Woodpecker flew across the path directly in front of us, already bringing us to 6/6 expected woodpecker species for the day (Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpecker, plus Northern Flicker, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker). The day felt as though it had endless potential.
We walked a few hundred feet down the road before turning back to our cars and heading to the next spot. There were three levels of service roads along the Canal, and we headed to the bottom level to check the water for gulls, cormorants, and ducks. For the next hour or so, we spent our time driving a couple hundred feet, getting out of the car and walking around a bit, keeping our eyes peeled for any birds that might pop out of the fog, and listening for any song or chip note that could mean adding another species to the tally. At every stop, Bill would list out the three or four top species on our hit list for that particular location– an absolutely brilliant tactic for a whirlwind all-day birding event like this, that re-focused us on our goal.
As we reached the end of the C&D Canal within our territory, we turned down another service road, headed into a forested, boggy area called Joy Run. We thought for sure we’d have Rusty Blackbird and Winter Wren here, but no luck. We did, however, come across a flurry of birds that added easy-misses like Tufted Titmouse and White-breasted Nuthatch to our day list. We were walking back to our cars when I saw what I thought was an Accipiter landing in a pine tree. As I brought my bins up to my eyes, I realized the bird was actually a Great-horned Owl! How incredible to see one of these nocturnal raptors out in the daylight! The owl quickly re-positioned itself into a more covert area, obscured by branches and vines, but we each got a good look through Bill’s scope. The owl was constantly scanning it’s surroundings, turning it’s head back and forth, back and forth. Luckily, he or she went undetected by the chickadees and jays that had just passed through, and avoided being mobbed.
The road along Joy Run unexpectedly ended in a dead end, and the three of us gathered around my car to examine our maps, and figure out where we’d be going next. We located a handful of waste water treatment ponds (wintertime gold mines for birders– these water features are often attractive to waterfowl) and started making our way back towards the canal. Earlier that morning, Bill had pointed out how perfect the bridges and towers along the canal were to attract a Peregrine Falcon, a pair of which breed nearby. And just like that, we found one perched on a mid-air oil pipeline! Another excellent species for the count!
Our first treatment pond added Dark-eyed Junco to our list, but no waterfowl or late swallows. On our way to the second set of treatment ponds, Bill suddenly pulled over into a gravel pull-off based solely on the intuition that the hedgerow North of the road looked like a prime spot for a Bald Eagle to perch. The three of us crossed the road, and scanned the distant treetops, and immediately found a very large black bird with a white head– an adult Bald Eagle! Now that’s the stuff of legends right there. I can’t believe how well Bill called that one!
We continued systematic coverage of our territory, driving down every street and tallying every single bird we came across. The count ended on a high note, as we reached the Eastern border of our area; a flock of over 8,000 Snow Geese was landing onto a cornfield easily observable from a gravel pull-off! Before we even got out of the car, Bill told us to keep an eye out for Northern Harriers (a species we had yet to encounter yet, despite the expansive farm fields in our territory), as something about landing Snow Geese flocks attracts them. Who would’ve known! As we started to scan the flock for rarities, Bill picked out a Ross’s Goose, bringing our total species for the day to 57! The snow geese were exceedingly nervous and flighty, constantly picking up and rearranging themselves in the farm field the spectacle of seeing thousands of white birds in flight will never get old. And just as predicted, we spotted a juvenile Northern Harrier flying overhead.
At that point, we tallied up our totals for the day. Some highlights were a ton of American Robins (1,681 to be exact) and a nice smattering of raptors, including American Kestrel, and adult Red-shouldered Hawk, and 4 Bald Eagles. With our territory completely accounted for, Hannah and I parted ways with Bill and headed to some nearby hotspots we were eager to bird: the first of which was the newly built observation platform at the Augustine Wildlife Area Ashton Tract. As long as we stayed within the Middletown count circle, we could still contribute any remarkable sightings to the count compiler.
The Augustine Wildlife Area & Other Middletown Hotspots
During our last Delmarva Ornithological Society (DOS) monthly meeting, Bill had unveiled this brand new platform– a joint project between DNREC, DOS, and others, and partially funded by dollars acquired through the Delaware Bird-A-Thon— and we were very excited to check it out. In the parking lot, we heard the high frequency, descending chip notes of Savannah Sparrows (a species we had dipped on within our territory), and got great looks at these stunning field birds. Here, we ran into John Janowski, who’s territory was focused on the Eastern side of Area 2B. John was excited to hear about the Savannah Sparrows, as he, too, had yet to encounter them. As the three of us walked out to the observation platform, I spotted a late Glossy Ibis foraging with two Great Blue Herons in the distant marshland. Very cool, and a new species for Area 2B’s count! It’s funny how birds that are expected, or even common, during the breeding period become wildly exciting when encountered out of season.
A few minutes later, we arrived at the observation platform, which 100% lived up to our expectations! What a gorgeous structure and such an improvement from scanning the impoundment through dense foliage. From here, we saw a few Double-crested Cormorants and Ring-billed Gulls in the distance.
Our final stop of the day was at Grier’s Pond– a tiny but awesome hotspot just south of the Canal on Dutch Neck Road. Here, we re-located the Little Blue Herons that were previously reported by Christopher Rowe earlier in the day. At this point, the sun was setting, and we made our way onto the Reedy Point Bridge, headed back North. I scanned and scanned the surrounding marshlands for hunting Short-eared Owls with no luck. This species is becoming a real nemesis bird for me…
Overall the day was downright fantastic! I had a super fun time birding with Bill, Hannah, and John for the Middletown Christmas Bird Count! I learned so much in just a few hours, and had so many new birding experiences. It’s wonderful to spend the day sharing this life-changing hobby with others. If you’ve never participated in a Christmas Count before, there are still a few days left in the season (runs from December 15-January 4), and there’s always next year!
Now that we’re reaching the end of 2015, I’m starting to look back on the year in awe of what I’ve physically accomplished. I’m looking forward to writing up my summary post of all the awesomeness that was birding in 2015, and a new post containing my goals for the upcoming year. I can’t even imagine where I’ll be health-wise in another year. Thank you for reading and for your encouragement!