Sporting Life, Conservation // 5 min Read

In the Field: January Eye to the Sky

Written by Aaron Palmieri, Conservancy Educator

Jan 14, 2022

December 15th was the perfect day for the 2021 Christmas Bird Count. The weather was cool and sunny with little wind to affect bird activity. This year’s count started off with a bang as the Palmetto Bluff team snuck out to the Duck Pond before first light and witnessed almost 150 wood ducks take off for the day. We stood there mesmerized as each flock of woodies flew by, making whistling calls as they went. After this amazing start, we crept along the old rice dikes seeking out birds hiding among the cattails, and we were not disappointed. Swamp sparrows and marsh wrens snuck through the grasses, with the latter being amiable enough to give us some fantastic views. Up ahead we could hear red-winged blackbirds , which gave us pause. Our hesitation was due to the flock of over 1,700 blackbirds that erupted from the grasses in 2020, which caused our heads to spin as we counted them. We crept a little closer and a few small flocks began lifting off from their hiding spots before a brief pause gave a false sense that the blackbirds were done at this spot… We were wrong. The rest of the team began focusing on other birds as two of us stood in place counting hundreds upon hundreds of blackbirds as they flew from the grasses and formed a black mass in the sky. They finally dispersed and we had a chance to breathe. When it was all said and done, we had over 2,300 red-winged blackbirds at the Duck Pond! We recollected ourselves and moved on, adding a northern harrier, bald eagle, and small flock of blue-winged teal to our count list.

Our next two stops were the jumping course at Longfield Stables and the Lake Cut within the managed forest, which were both less productive than they have been in the past. At the stables, we did observe another bald eagle and a couple song sparrows, but we did not see any meadowlarks or falcons this year. The Lake Cut provided a third bald eagle, but little else that was new. We moved on to Moreland before heading to River Road Preserve and while we walked by Lake Bales, we saw not one, not two, but three bald eagles fly overhead! We strolled down the main trail of the Preserve and bolstered the numbers of many species that we had already documented that day, but we also added an adorable black-and-white warbler to our list of birds. We expedited our return trip by riding back through River Road Preserve on the tour truck and made our way to Moreland Landing where we added multiple shorebird species that moved along the marsh banks of Corley’s Creek. We also had a comical sighting of an osprey enviously gazing at yet another bald eagle feeding on a fish. After we finished with the Landing, we made the long drive back to the Duck Pond Bridge where we saw the black-crowned night-heron that regularly hangs out around the bridge and heard a clapper rail call out in the marsh. Right as we were about to turn around and call it a day, a brief flash of movement caught our eyes along the edges of the Duck Pond. The creature moving through the brush hopped out into the open and we could not contain our excitement. A sora! Soras are a species of rail that spends the winter throughout the southern parts of the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean. While it is not a rare species, it is rare to get an excellent view of any rail, as they are incredibly elusive.

We made our way back to the parking lot and reveled in the day’s events. The sora was the highlight of the day and seeing 7 bald eagles throughout the count was another plus. While we did not see some of the uncommon species that I always hope for, the abundance of birds we observed was a delightful experience. We ended the count with over 70 species, which is on the higher end of our species numbers for the Christmas Bird Count. I want to give a shout out to the amazing team we had for the 2021 Count. Our fearless leader Jackie Currie, who has been leading our count for multiple years and I hope continues to lead them for many years to come. Palmetto Bluff resident Terry Skiba, who each year takes on the challenging task of keeping the written record of birds we see while having to listen to multiple people call out birds to her. Palmetto Bluff resident Annie Kosh, who has been our team’s photographer and has given us amazing photos over the years. Peter Johnson, who has been a long-time participant of the Palmetto Bluff count and has spotted some of our unique birds over the years, including this year’s sora. Jeff Dennis, who joined us all the way from Walterboro and brought along great birding knowledge and captured excellent photos of the team and the birds. Conservancy research and education coordinator Lydia Moore, who also has a great eye and ear for birds. Lastly, the Conservancy research fellow Sam Holst, who experienced his first Christmas Bird Count with us! I always love bird watching, but it is an even greater pleasure to be able to bird watch with a group of enthusiastic and passionate people such as this.

After the Christmas Bird Count, we gave ourselves some much-needed rest and set our sights towards January and the new year. As we move into January, bird activity will be fairly similar to what we experienced in December. The year-round residents, such as cardinals and chickadees, are frequent visitors to our feeders, and this is a great time of year to practice your identification skills and become familiar with these residential species. I have already heard quite a few flocks of cedar waxwings from high in the canopy and highly recommend trying to get a visual of these stunning birds. American goldfinches have been few and far between this winter and I would love to hear of any sightings you may have around the Bluff. Lastly, FeederWatch will continue throughout the month and we hope you will join us to see if any unique birds make an appearance during the surveys.

Now is the time of year to seek out some of the more elusive winter residents in Beaufort County! If you see or photograph something you wish to share, you can submit your sightings to Aaron Palmieri at and they may appear in next month’s update.

December’s Unique Sightings:

Northern Harrier (Duck Pond)

Sora (Duck Pond)

Bald Eagles (Property-wide)

Hooded Mergansers (Inland Waterway)