The annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count (CBC) took place Saturday Jan., 4. In the weeks prior to the count many regular Balsam CBC participants, like me, had been crying in our eggnog. Bob Olthoff, long time compiler for the count was calling Lake Junaluska a “liquid desert” due to the lack of waterfowl. And it was sparse; about all you could count on were a few coots, the feral ducks and geese, ruddy ducks and buffleheads. We had pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact – we would most likely have a new low count record after last Saturday.
But then, that howling storm hit the East Coast Thursday night. We missed most of the heavy snowfall but temperatures plummeted. Friday was raw and windy.
Saturday morning came and while it was still chilly, low 20s, it was clear and when CBC counters got to the lake – there were ducks! Not huge rafts but several small groups of different species. Besides the common Canada geese, mallards, coots, pied-billed grebes, ruddy ducks and buffleheads that have been hanging all winter, counters spotted red-breasted mergansers, hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaup and a surf scoter. Counters at the lake also recorded ring-billed gull, double-crested cormorant, belted kingfisher and great blue heron, keeping us from the low-count doldrums.
CBCs like all one day birding events are always filled with easy misses and birds you don’t get every year. My group, composed of Paul Super, Joe Sam and Kate Queen, Jeanie Shaffer and me, recorded 44 species (about average) for our section of the count. Our section includes the Waynesville Watershed where, last year we had brown creeper and three or four ruffed grouse – two species we dipped on this year. The flip side: our section also covers the area around Plott Creek Road, where we found a huge mixed flock of blackbirds. Species in the flock included common grackle, red-winged blackbird, rusty blackbird, brown-headed cowbird and European starling. I’m not one hundred percent sure but I believe the only one of those species we had last year was starling. We estimated the total flock to have at least 1,000 birds. It was the largest concentration of rusty blackbirds (150) I have ever seen in Western North Carolina. The flock contained around 400 each of common grackle and red-winged blackbirds and 100 or so brown-headed cowbirds.
We almost dipped on owls, but not quite. I got tapes and struck out around 5.a.m. in the predawn darkness to try and call up and owl or two. After and hour and a half and about 14 miles, stopping to play tapes at spots where owls have been recorded in the past, I came home owl-less. However, as we were standing around in the late afternoon stillness in the watershed I hooted out “I cook at my house, who cooks for you allllll.” And from the darkening woods was rejoined by “Tom, Dick and Harry and I don’t know who allll.” We got a barred owl.
The surf scoter was a new bird for the Balsam CBC. While they have been recorded occasionally from the lake this is the first one on count day. We ended up with 72 species for count day, which is about middle of the road – our high count total is 77 and our low count total is 69. So, thanks to the CBC gods we had a very successful count.