I couldn’t think of anywhere I would rather be. Stars blazed above me seemingly close enough to jump up and touch. A thin wispy cloud behind me was pelting me with fine, hard snow pellets. The wind had cranked up and was steady between 15 and 20 m.p.h.
I knew my mission was futile but I played the owl tape anyway. I would have to be very close to an owl for it to hear the tape and for me to hear any response in those conditions and why would any self-respecting owl feel like chatting in that weather anyway. But the morning hadn’t been a total wash. I stirred a barred owl earlier before the wind picked up.
It was 5:30 a.m. I jumped back in my buggy and headed down the mountain. I didn’t want to be late for the convening of the Carolina Field Birders first annual Christmas Bird Count. The crew was meeting at Beaver’s Diner in Waynesville at 6:45 a.m. for a hearty breakfast in preparation for a day of birding.
More than 20 enthused participants were at Beaver’s, wolfing down breakfast and slurping hot coffee to steel themselves for the 20 degree temperatures outside, while waiting for their marching orders from count compiler Bob Olthoff.
The group was composed primarily of CFB members. There were a few welcomed guests and with a little arm-twisting, Bob had convinced Buncombe County CBC compiler Marilyn Westphall and Henderson County compiler Wayne Forsythe to join in the fun.
The count, like all Audubon CBCs, was conducted in a 15-mile radius circle. The center of CFB’s circle is approximately the intersection of Pinnacle Road and Old Balsam Road. Bob divided the circle into six sections and assigned leaders and participants for each section.
With orders in hand, the troops struck out into the cold January morning. Although sunny, the morning was quite chilly. I know when I returned to Cold Springs Gap at 11 a.m., where I had ended my owl search, the single-track road was still covered with a light dusting of snow.
Ten hours after departing Beaver’s the troops reconvened at Bogart’s to compile the master list for the count and cuss and discuss the finer points of the day. The eyes were a little bloodshot, binocular rings still imprinted around them, necks were a little stiffer but most of the early morning Beaver’s smiles remained.
The count recorded a very respectable 69 species, average for the mountains of WNC in the winter. Buncombe’s count this year was 68 species and Henderson recorded about 83 species. This year’s species list was hampered by the fact there is no water in Lake Junaluska. Lake J is the premier waterfowl spot in the area. The count turned up a few rarities; common yellowthroat, gray catbird, Lincoln’s sparrow and red-shouldered hawk probably the most prominent.
Of course the greatest numbers of birds were our common winter residents like Carolina chickadee, northern cardinal, tufted titmouse and crow. Like most CBCs, the misses are as puzzling as the rarities. While most common raptors were reported, numbers were low, even though the day warmed up nicely and the sky was clear. Only one or two groups reported turkey vultures, a bird you expect to see any time you go afield.
Olthoff said he was quite pleased with the inaugural count and pleasantly surprised by the turnout. He expressed special gratitude to Balsam Mountain Preserve for their generosity and support. The preserve was included in the count circle and produced about 16 ruffed grouse and 25 wild turkeys.
The next CFB meeting will be at 7:30 p.m., Jan. 14, at Community Bank in Sylva. Call 828.293.5717 for information.