Conservation // 5 min Read

Christmas Bird Count 2022

Written by Aaron Palmieri

Jan 16, 2023

During past Christmas Bird Counts, I used to wake up before my alarm in anticipation of a long, but exciting day of bird watching. I fully expected to be awake before my alarm this year due to our newborn, who likes to wake up at 3 AM. However, he must have sensed that today was a special day and slept right through the night! Once my alarm went off, I hopped out of bed, scarfed down breakfast, grabbed a fistful of granola bars, and headed out the door to make it to the Conservancy shop before 6 AM. I loaded up our spotting scope in the expedition and proceeded to our meeting location, passing Lydia as she came in to pick up the other vehicle. We try to have everyone together by 6:15 AM so we can say our quick hellos and the team leader, Jackie Currie, and I can give the game plan for the day. By 6:30 we are parking at our first destination: the backside of Duck Pond. To most people who visit Palmetto Bluff, the Duck Pond is a roughly 30-acre lagoon where people can admire alligators as they enter the Bluff. For us, it is ~150-acres of old rice impoundments that are habitat to a large diversity of songbirds and waterfowl. The sole purpose of our early start time is to document the ducks leaving their hidden roosts below the cattails as they head to their daytime foraging sites. The lack of light makes the identification challenging, and we must rely on flight behavior, body size, and any vocalizations the ducks provide. The overcast weather must have delayed the flight of ducks, as we had the opportunity to stand on one of the old rice dikes and take in the cool, dark morning while observing a large roost of great egrets.

Great Egrets
Left Image: Great Egret Roost; Right Image: Great Egret by Jeff Dennis

As the sun peeked over the horizon, the wood ducks began taking off from their hidden roosts. I am not sure how much time passed as our heads spun trying to keep up with the wood ducks flying off in all directions. Once the dust settled, we had counted roughly 150 wood ducks. Continuing along the dikes, we documented yellow-rumped warblers, marsh wrens, a Wilson’s snipe, only ~1,000 Red-winged blackbirds, an American kestrel, and a large flotilla of green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, and gadwall. I say only ~1,000 blackbirds because we had over 2,600 and 2,300 blackbirds in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Left Image: Red-winged Blackbird Flock by Annie Kosh; Right Image: Blue-winged Teal by Jeff Dennis

After a successful start of the day, we moved on to Moreland Landing in hopes of spotting shorebirds out in the marsh. Unfortunately, the tide had come in and submerged the banks where the shorebirds would forage. Along with a biting wind that picked up, this spot was sparse with activity. We at least had the opportunity to photograph two common loons close to the boat ramp. We headed back to Moreland for a quick bathroom break and to document birds around the classroom before we moved on to River Road Preserve, where we had some great sightings! A loggerhead shrike was in a small pine on our way to the Preserve, and we had a blue-headed vireo give us great views at eye level, which is probably the lowest I have ever seen one, since they spend most of their time foraging in the mid-story. We continued along the main trail and encountered a few foraging flocks of songbirds. Foraging flocks are a common occurrence during the winter months and can either be a single species or multiple! Once we passed the marsh opening on the main trail, we split the team with half our group following the trail along the Inland Waterway and the other half walking the trail that borders the marsh. We managed to get some unique species during this split, including a Forster’s tern, black-and-white warbler, an unidentified Buteo (red-tailed hawk or red-shouldered hawk) being harassed by American crows, and a flock of ~90 fish crows. I was most excited about the fish crows because they are a species that has been seen in lower abundances over the years, and we used to see flocks of over 200 during past Christmas Bird Counts. An odd occurrence for River Road Preserve was that this was the only place we documented bald eagles for the 2022 count. Nonetheless, we at least observed three individuals at different points along the trail.

Left Image: Immature Male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker by Jeff Dennis; Right Image: Blue-headed Vireo by Jeff Dennis

We eventually left River Road Preserve and made our way to the equestrian jumping course in hopes of spotting falcons, eastern meadowlarks, or shrikes. We had wonderful views of an American kestrel perched upon a snag, but unfortunately no meadowlarks or shrikes. An unexpected visitor was a ring-billed gull circling over a large flock of cormorants swimming in the lagoon. It was fascinating watching the cormorants as they looked almost like a wave made of birds. One line of them would dive underwater only to resurface with fish as the next line of birds dove behind the first group and so on. The cormorants then all took off at once and as one of our teammates stated, “It looks like something out of National Geographic!” I have to say, it really did.

Left Image: Watching at the Equestrian Field by Jeff Dennis; Right Image: CBC Team at Equestrian Field by Annie Kosh

After the jumping course, we were beginning to lose some steam; eight hours of non-stop bird watching can do that to you. We decided to head to Duck Pond Bridge, which is our final stop for the count. On the way there, I was about to call out some mourning doves sitting along the fence off Old Moreland Road before quickly swerving onto the grass and shouting, “Hawk!” A red-shouldered hawk was perched near the edge of the doves, and we watched as it took off and lazily attempted to grab one. We loved watching it in action, but then we began hollering in excitement when a second red-shouldered hawk hopped up from behind a fence post and joined in on the dove harassment. We spent a few minutes taking photos of the hawk duo before we continued to our final destination, slightly reinvigorated from the experience

We parked and walked to the bridge, listening for forest species as we went. We had the usual black-crowned night-heron that greets us every year, perched on the small island near the eastern side of the bridge. As we looked for more activity in this clump of vegetation, I glimpsed a spotted sandpiper lift off from the edge and flit across the water to land on the tip of the alligator basking strip. I love watching the little samba dance that this species does, and we all got a chuckle from watching it. Near the western edge of the bridge, we managed to flush out a marsh wren and a swamp sparrow, but unfortunately no sora this year. We accumulated 20 species at the bridge before loading up, returning to the parking lot, and chatting about our favorite sightings of the day.

The Christmas Bird Count is one of my favorite times of year, and we had such an amazing team for the 2022 count. Our fearless leader, Jackie Currie, has a great enthusiasm for bird watching and manages to bring together a fantastic team every year. Lydia Moore and Sam Holst, the Conservancy research & education coordinator and research fellow, had just returned from a bat conference in Athens, Georgia the day before only to immediately turn around and wake up bright and early to count birds. For having such a busy week, Lydia and Sam had sharp eyes during the count and pointed out quite a few of the unique species this year. Palmetto Bluff resident, Annie Kosh, is one of our photographers and has helped capture photos of unique birds every year she has joined us. Cassie Beato, the naturalist at Montage, joined us for the first time this year and has a well-rounded knowledge of shorebirds and species found in the salt marsh. Jeff Dennis (Lowcountry Outdoors) brought his camera and excellent identification skills all the way from Walterboro to be part of the Palmetto Bluff team. Joe Harris is one of our duck identifiers, and he is greatly appreciated during our silhouette identifications at the Duck Pond. Lastly, Kay Lauerner, who is new to the team this year, was a fantastic spotter and hopefully a returning asset.

CBC Team with Jeff Dennis by Annie Kosh

With the Conservancy’s December fundraisers and the Christmas Bird Count completed, this bird nerd can officially say goodbye to 2022, and begin to think about the birds that await us in 2023.