Christmas Bird Count provides reminder of value of open mind, close observation

Posted by JEFF KIDD on December 17, 2013 

At first, the dark, little ball that bobbed gently about 50 yards from the floating dock at Dataw Island Marina didn't look like the sort of thing we were there to count. Not to me, anyway. It looked more like a weathered, blackened marker buoy that had broken free of its crab pot.

But as it floated closer, you could make out feathers. At that point, we thought we were literally looking at a dead duck.

“Would that coun -- one member of the group asked Charlie Holbrook, the Fripp Audubon Club member who supervised data collection from Dataw Island's common areas for Saturday's annual Christmas Bird Count.

Before he could answer, there was detectable movement. The bird had tucked its head tightly to its side, but as the overcast sky finally hinted of daybreak, our specimen was roused from slumber. Suddenly, it was paddling all about.

So the bird was alive. Still, we could not tell what kind of bird it was.

We puzzled from the dock, as six in our group aimed binoculars at it, and I zoomed up my camera lens to 500mm. No one could get a make on it. Charlie hazarded a guess --goldeneye duck -- but when it fluttered its wings and raised itself from the water's surface, we could see its breast and belly were far too mottled.

We moved to another area of the dock for a better look, and I climbed over an obstruction that I'm pretty sure was put there to keep people off that section. I took photos and brought them back for the inspection of the watchers on the other side of the barrier, but the images were't helping much -- they were underexposed in the low light. Debi pulled our field guide from her bag. We thumbed through and made another educated guess: a lesser scaup -- but a juvenile, which would explain the white patch at the bottom of its neck and its dappled plumage.

Yes, that must be what it is. Nothing else in the duck section of our guide looked remotely close to our little paddler, and lesser scaups frequent our area. So we checked that species on our bird list and turned our attention to the common loons swimming on the far side of the channel. Debi and I were happy enough with the verdict, since neither of us had ever seen a lesser scaup before.

Eventually, we left the marina to scout other areas of Dataw, and in about three hours of counting, we saw nearly 50 species -- including a bald eagle, wood storks and a juvenile little blue heron, which is actually white and easily mistaken for a snowy egret at a casual glance.

I was pretty tired by the time we got home, but I wanted to take a look at the more than 400 photos I shot. When I came to our lesser scaup, I was disappointed. I had a few short-range shots, but the light was so dim that morning, the images were grainy and revealed little detail, even after relentless Photoshopping. This didn't really seal the deal on our lesser scaup.

So I got on with the other photos and stringing together the video you see with this post. Debi flipped through the field guide for a while, then went shopping.

By Sunday, Debi still hadn't seen all the photos, so I gave her a peek -- and her first good look at the mystery bird we'd seen at the marina. She had the same reaction I did the day before -- the photo just didn't match what we saw in the field guide or the other scaup photos I found on the Internet for comparison.

"What it really looks like is this," Debi said, pointing to an entry in the book for a common eider, "but we're not in that bird's range."

I looked more closely at the bird. I looked at the book. Then the bird again. Then book once more. Holding the page close to my face, I realized the little range map was showing us something we hadn't noticed before -- a little blue line indicating a common migration route that passes by our coastline. Then, we read the fine print: Rare visitor to South Carolina during winter.

O! M! G! We had spotted a rare bird (rare in these parts, anyway.) Us. On our very first bird count. We emailed Charlie, and he agreed with the ID. Debi and I did an excited little dance in the living room, which is an embarrassing admission for someone who usually gets this worked up only over a Gamecock touchdown, a "Walking Dead" marathon or the release of a new AC/DC album.

Somewhere in the dim light of an overcast Saturday morning lurked a lesson. I nearly dismissed this creature altogether, and then failed to see this bird for what it was because we considered only the common and familiar.

It took Sunday's discovery to fully appreciate Saturday's. And only patience, persistence and attention to detail allowed our silly little victory dance.


Audubon's Christmas Bird Count is an annual event tracing its history to Christmas Day 1900, when a ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then-budding organization, proposed a bird census to replace the tradition of holiday bird shoots.

According to the Audubon website:

The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

Several Audubon clubs in Beaufort County conducted counts over the weekend.

The Dataw survey was within the 15-mile-radius field circle for the Fripp Audubon Club and Naturally Fripp Community Habitat organizations' fifth year of local volunteer participation in the count. Charlie head up our group, Joe Roney recorded the count, and sharp-eyed Emmy Sullivan also participated. Rita Laughnane and Gretchen Blickle spent part of the day with us and were there when the common eider was spotted.

The Fripp club's territory also covered Fripp, Harbor, Hunting, Lady's and St. Helena islands. Some were field observers; others staked out their backyard feeders and reported what they saw. Dick Work, one of the event organizers, said that 22 people participated on the Fripp Island portion of the county. They tallied 67 species and 1,715 birds, which was a decline from more than 3,000 last year. Here's a look at the full Fripp report from 2012.

The Hilton Head Island Audubon Society held its event this weekend, as well. Results were reported Tuesday at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn, and a full report is likely in a few weeks, according to co-coordinator Barry Lowes. Preparations included a a primer by Lowes, who is a noted nature photographer and birder that was open to the public and told watchers what they might expect to see during the count.

Lowes said about 160 people participated on a Saturday that turned rainy by about 1 p.m. -- "That separated out the swimmers from the non-swimmers," he quipped.

The rain likely sent many birds under shelter, and Lowes said lower-than-usual counts are likely for this year's count.

The Sun City Bird Club reported good turnout Saturday. It sent field observers out in groups that included a mix of experienced birders and beginners. Like the Hilton Head society, the Sun City club brought in a local expert to speak about birds most typically seen in our area in December ahead of the event.

The group is part of the Sun City/Okatie Audubon circle, and its 15-mile diameter, formed in 2001, includes Belfair, Callawassie, Hampton Hall, Hampton Lake, Hilton Head Lakes, Oldfield, Rose Hill, Spring Island and Sun City.

"We usually have about 100 to 140 people to help with the count, which has included 14,000 to 23,000 birds with 120 to 140 species over the course of the count years," area coordinator Olvis Spencer said before Saturday's event. He expects the final count tally for 2013 to be available in late January.

• Residents of the Haig Point Club community on Daufuskie Island also conducted a count."The data we collect is reported as part of the Hilton Head Island Audubon chapter and it helps scientists and conservation biologists determine the long-term health and status of bird populations across America," Kathi De Leo, a Haig Point resident for the past seven years, said in a news release ahead of the event. Other residents involved were Toni Ferguson and Mike Loftus. De Leo was to join with Nan Lloyd and others from the Audubon Society for the all-day event, in which participants traveled the island in golf carts.

A year ago, the group observed 63 different bird species and a total of 1,190 birds, including a surprise find of a wintering painted bunting, the release said. The group is also proud of having three bald eagle nests on the island, where eagles give birth and stay through the winter months.

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