Sunday, January 27, 2013

Walking and Bird-Counting as Companion Activities

The birds are hungry in the dead of winter. Many of their food sources have disappeared until Spring. So it is fascinating to fill the feeder in the morning and watch so many of them fly in eagerly to grab a sunflower seed, perhaps flitting off to a nearby tree when they see me still out sipping coffee and watching. The Chickadees have been among the first to the feeders lately. I also have seen Juncos these cold days, and the usual Cardinals and Mourning Doves.

One thing for certain: I must resolve to improve my bird-identifying capabilities. This morning I saw yellow and blue birds flash by, but I was unable to place them within their species exactly. Those pretty yellow birds, for instance: Might they be Common Yellowthroats, Hooded Warblers, maybe even a female Orchard Oriole? I think from my handy "Compact Guide to South Carolina Birds" (Lone Pine Publishing International) I would tentatively identify them as Pine Warblers. That is what they most closely resemble in my untrained view. Besides, the Guide states that "in winter, these warblers join resident mixed flocks with chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches, traveling together through the pine forests of South Carolina." I've see lots of that trio flocking together.

It occurs to me that the more expert a bird identifier you are, the more that bird-watching and walking could become companion activities. And part of that expertise should be the ability to ID birds by hearing and not necessarily seeing them. This morning on my woodsy walk with Superdawg, I heard all sorts of distinctive bird sounds. The bird books provide some clue. For instance, the Guide states that the Pine Warbler's "song is a short musical  thrill; call-note is a sweet chip." One of the birdwatching Bibles, the National Audubon Society's "The Sibley Guide to Birds" (Alfred A. Knopt, Publisher) goes into detail about the Pine Warbler's rapid trill and its slower trill of "two-syllable, more musical whistles," as well as its flight call: a "clear, descending seet."

All this is challenging: I have no idea if those were Pine Warblers I heard in the pine forest on our walk today. And do you know how many varieties of warblers there are? I would think some audiotapes to supplement the written descriptions would be helpful in learning to distinguish among bird sounds.

Even as an amateur birder, this is a pursuit that can combine wonderfully with walking for exercise. One of my fondest outdoors memories is of joining veteran birders in the Christmas Bird Count in Rockbridge County, Virginia to do a newspaper feature story on this annual event. I remember we walked a long way, and these birding pros identified an amazing number of feathered friends. The National Audubon Society sponsors the Christmas Bird Count (the 113th annual was conducted from Dec. 14, 2012 through Jan. 5, 2013.) I am resolved to improve my birding skills out on the walking trails, and join in the count next December.

The good news is that I won't have to wait that long to start.  The Great Backyard Bird Count (16th annual) will be conducted February 15 through February 18, and novice birders are welcome to join the experts in sending in their observations. The purpose of the event is to make possible a real-time snapshot of winter bird populations. Last year's count detected a major southern invasion of Snowy Owls, perhaps motivated to move south from their normal Arctic haunts because of a scarcity of prey such as lemmings. Fascinating.

For this count, you can just watch your backyard feeder, or you can venture farther afield. Sadie dog and I will hit the trails and add another dimension to our walking. If you are interested in this activity, check out www.birdcount.org. Have fun!

Speaking of the Pine Warbler, check out this thorough breakdown of this pretty little bird by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology (which may well be one of my prime sources of knowledge going forward): http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pine_Warbler/lifehistory

© Robert G. Holland 2013

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