Female northern harrier pouncing on prey photo by Dori (dori@merr.info)

This year was the 15th annual Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen-science project created by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The count took place between Feb. 17 and Feb. 20. For the past seven or eight years I have used the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) as an excuse to visit my old stomping grounds in Northeast Louisiana. I would go over, spend the weekend visiting friends and take one day to count birds at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Monroe. This year I couldn’t make the trip over due to a change in work schedule and a few too many logistical speed bumps. I could, however, squeeze a few hours of birding in this past Saturday afternoon so I slipped away to Kituwah for a little avian accounting.

Kituwah is about 300 acres along the Tuckasegee River in Swain County. It was purchased by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in 1996 and is the historic site of the Band’s revered mother town. Tribal members farm small plots on the site and it is open to the public from sunup to sundown.

I was walking along the railroad tracks at Kituwah, moments after arriving, when a dry raspy “kehesch!” made me think I had stepped through a portal to my Louisiana home. I turned in time to see the robin-sized, brown and white projectile catapult straight up above the winter-brown grasses, poop and zigzag outta there like a NASCAR driver after a tire change. Another step, another kehesch! and then another till five Wilson’s snipe had popped up and taken off like a band of drunken banshees trying to decide which way to go. The erratic zigzag flight probably evolved as a way to deter aerial predators but it has been a boon to Winchester and other ammunition makers as rattled hunters, with shotguns wagging this way and that blast away into empty space.

Used to be a snipe was a snipe was a snipe, and all were considered subspecies of the common snipe, Gallinago gallinago, the European and Asian version. But recently the Wilson’s snipe, Gallinago delicata, of the America’s was split and elevated to species status.

Now you don’t have to go south to find Wilson’s snipe in the winter. A few overwinter in the northern tier of states and there is a resident West Coast population that reaches into Canada. However, they are more common in the South in the winter and some migrate all the way to South America. They are common winter residents in the marshes, farmlands and rice fields of Louisiana.

I encountered two other species that could have easily been recorded at Black Bayou. In one wet thicket near the main canal that traverses Kituwah I flushed an American woodcock. This whirling dervish popped up like it was ready for blast off – then just as abruptly changed its mind and floated back down to earth on the other side of the thicket. I hope I get a chance to take the girls over one evening soon and catch this species’ amazing aerial courtship display.

The third marshy species I found at Kituwah was a northern harrier – the “marsh hawk” of my Louisiana youth. This buoyant flier glides effortlessly a few feet above ground over marsh and/or farmland to suddenly pounce or fall from the sky, on unsuspecting prey like small rodents or birds.

The northern harrier has a more rounded or disc-shaped face than most hawks that is owl-like in form and function. The feathers around its face help direct sound to its ears allowing the harrier to hear its prey much like owls do.

Females and immatures are brown with a large white rump patch. The male is an exquisite slate-gray leading to its colorful colloquial moniker – the gray ghost.

All in all it was a wonderful and relaxing GBBC. Not high numbers – 37 species – but not bad for a few winter hours. Sparrows ruled the day as far as species, they included song, swamp, chipping, field, fox, white-crowned, white-throated and savannah.