Christmas Bird Count

Early on a cold, sunny morning in mid December, a Hermit Thrush perched in a small, bare tree near the North Oconee River and called a rich, low chup. My good birding friend Marianne and I watched it for several seconds, a light-brown, Robin-like bird with dark-spotted breast and a cinnamon tail that it repeatedly raised and slowly lowered as it watched us with a wide round eye. A second Hermit Thrush called chup from another tree nearby.

It was Christmas Bird Count day for the Oconee Rivers Audubon Society in Athens, Georgia – and for me, the gift of a beautiful day outside, watching birds, a break in the middle of the rush and pressure of a busy holiday season. Marianne and I have been doing the count together for several years, often along with two or three other birding friends, but this year it was just the two of us covering our traditional, assigned section of the area, and we had a great day. Not a spectacular number of species in the end, and none that were unusual or unexpected – but just a Grand Day Out, with a few memorable sightings – and at least one interesting mystery.

The day was mostly overcast, with high gray clouds, some breaks of sun, and no real threat of rain. It was cold when we began before sunrise, listening for early birds from the deck of Marianne’s home near the river as the sky flooded briefly in rose and gold. Marianne had been up earlier to listen for owls – with no luck. But as the sunrise color faded and the light gradually grew, we heard Carolina Chickadee, Northern Cardinal, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Towhee, Brown Thrasher, Downy Woodpecker, American Robin, Cedar Waxwings, American Goldfinch, White-throated Sparrow, the trill of a Pine Warbler, and the sweet mews of two very vocal Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.

The point of the Christmas Bird Count is to count every bird one finds – as well as possible – so after a quick break for hot tea and muffins, we headed out with clipboard, map, checklist and binoculars, and we birded all day, until the last light of twilight.

For the first half of the morning, and again in early afternoon, we stayed near the river, checking out several different, mostly wooded spots, and adding Pileated, Red-bellied, Hairy and more Downy Woodpeckers, Northern Flicker, Brown-headed Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, many more White-throated Sparrows, Tufted Titmice, Carolina Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers; Yellow-rumped Warblers, Carolina Wren, Eastern Phoebe, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Cardinal and Eastern Towhee, Northern Mockingbird, Dark-eyed Junco, and Cedar Waxwings, and the yank-yank calls of one Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Once we heard the cries of a Red-shouldered Hawk – and this turned out to be the only Red-shouldered Hawk all day, a little surprising, but on the whole, it just wasn’t a day for hawks, it seemed – we saw no other raptors, except for one Red-tailed Hawk late in the afternoon.

Even vultures seemed hard to find. We only saw one or two Turkey Vultures soaring – until mid afternoon, when we stumbled on a large and impressive gathering of vultures, maybe a roost area, in what seemed a very unlikely place, a small subdivision with few trees and small yards. But in the few, bare-limbed trees perched the black, hunched forms of scores of Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures. Overhead, many more circled, and as we settled in for a while and watched, hundreds of Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures sailed in from all around. It was a somewhat eerie feeling to watch as so many huge, black, funereal birds floated in over and all around us, and silently gathered.

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