Mount Rogers Christmas Bird Count

December 19th, 2010

We met in Volney, Virginia at 8 AM to receive our assignments from Allen Boynton, the compiler for the Mount Rogers/White Top circle. This would be the 111th annual CBC (http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count).

In order to prepare for a CBC day in the frigid high country, one must pack the appropriate clothes, field binoculars and scopes, energy food, water and a truckload of humor. Mica Paluzzi, Jim Minick and I were gifted part of area five and all of area four, (which include both lower and higher elevations), thus offering us the chance to actually see some birds.

We set off for Sugar Grove, (taking a short side jaunt down Homestead Road and back), where we caught back roads to Buller Fish Cultural Station, along the edge of the South Fork of the Holston River, and earnestly began our count. Ice covered the hatchery driveways, so we took it easy and spent most of our time on foot. At first it looked like a bust, but perseverance paid off as we quietly watched and waited. Peering into the woods we found a mixed flock consisting of golden-crowned kinglets, Carolina chickadees, a tufted titmouse, one downy, a yellow-bellied sapsucker, and blue jay. We noted crows
harassing a pileated woodpecker as Mica spotted a flyover flicker. On the water we found a dozen mallards who spooked in mass, associating any human with a gunner. While working our way back to the road, we observed the arrival of a lone fisherman, who flushed three great blue herons and one kingfisher, causing us some jubilation. Deciding to inspect the marshy spots at the entrance to the hatchery proved to be a sound idea…yielding two of both Wilson’s snipe and killdeer.

Onward. Most of the lower country covered turned out to be residential, making conspicuous and annoying our slow driving and rubbernecking. A few times did we receive the impression that folks were not happy sharing the road with us, or scoping out their bird feeders. But here it was that we saw the large portion of the 36 species tallied, including rusty blackbirds, not always expected.

Relieved to leave the human density behind, we headed to Konnorock and Fairwood Valley, on the way stopping for lunch at an iced-in overlook. While munching on carrots and granola bars I spied a red-tailed hawk perched above the parking lot, and we three got a decent look as it lifted up and away.

Many of the roads were either not plowed, or simply too slippery for safe negotiation, so we played it safe and stayed on the main road alongside Big Laurel Creek, making several stops and short hikes. A swampy zone gave us our hermit thrush and swamp sparrow, the swamp being a ‘lifer’ for Mica. Nearby a feeder hosted purple finches, (another lifer for Mica), a goldfinch or two, and the needed white-breasted nuthatch. Jim kept finding turkeys, with our first handful found on Homestead Road, and last at the very edge of our circle. Crows and juncos were abundant…where ever a birder be, so be a crow, or more likely, many crows. Between crows (61), white-throated sparrows (19), dark-eyed juncos (70), blue jays (31), mallards (28), and wild turkeys (25), our count numbers grew rapidly.

We pulled into Grindstone Campground with determined hopes of adding a red-breasted nuthatch and brown creeper. Joining us, on their way home, was another of our circle group whose entire day had been spent in the higher elevations. Together then, we made an effort to find either of these little birds, and just when we were about to give up, Mica spotted a creeper flitting from one tree to another. His keen, (young), eyesight prevailed upon the moment.

Not being satisfied without at least one winter wren, Jim urged us to stop at a couple of likely wren habitats…along the fast flowing creek…and finally, we succeeded not with one but two. Deciding that we were done, I nosed the truck towards ‘home’ and just as we were crossing the circle line, we added two bluebirds.

It needs to be said that when otherwise perfectly rational people find themselves on such a foray as this, they begin to wonder about choosing to spend a day in such harsh climate over, say, sitting in a chair by a fire reading a book, cup of tea in hand. In defense of what some would insist is a temporary condition of questionable sanity I offer this. The winter landscape in the high country is infinitely beautiful, and cannot be experienced through calendar pictures. Nope, you gotta be there, wind in face, toes and fingers numb, laughing out loud at the pure joy of it all.

SJR