Coming To Our Census – Part The First

Header Image: Burmarigold or Smooth Beggartick (Bidens laevis)

Standing by the side of the road in the dark. Hands cupping our ears. Straining for the sounds of the night. “Whip, whip, whip, whip!” The loud call accompanied the sound of flapping wings passing us as an Eastern Whip-poor-will flew along with mouth open wide to inhale insects hovering above the sandy stretch of road. Ten minutes later, the surprisingly soft trill of an Eastern Screech Owl added to our rush of adrenaline.

Gini and I were a “team of birders” assigned to cover specific areas for the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. The count tradition began near the turn of the 20th century when an early officer of the newly formed Audubon Society, Frank Chapman, thought it would be a good idea to have bird watchers around the country count birds in their area instead of having contests to see who could shoot the most during the Christmas holiday. The fledgling effort took wings over the years and today tens of thousands of citizen scientists contribute to a data base which helps assess the health of bird populations and helps guide conservation action.

Our day began about two hours before sunrise and ended just before sunset. We covered three geographically separate areas within a circle that had the city of Lakeland, Florida at its center. Six other teams covered different locations in order to provide a snapshot of birds present in the area on that day. The two of us identified 52 species and counted just over 900 individual birds. Whew! Our fingers and toes were tired! We birded by car, foot and all-terrain-vehicle. It was a good day.

If you have a chance to participate in one of these counts, contact the local Audubon chapter to volunteer. It’s fun, your efforts contribute to important research data and it’s a good opportunity to learn more about birds. Expertise in birding is not required! Christmas counts are normally held between December 14 thru January 5 each year.

Here are images of the 900 birds we saw.

Yes. I am kidding. Only 100 or so.

The Eastern Towhee breeds in Florida but this individual is likely a migrant since it has dark eyes. The Florida variant has pale eyes.

A young Red-shouldered Hawk looks very intent on finding breakfast.

The morning was quite cool and a bit of sunshine on a white road offered a perfect spot for this beautiful Red Cornsnake (Pantherophis guttatus) to warm up. These are also known as Red Ratsnakes and are very welcome around the farm or ranch as this namesake implies their particular talent.

Sandhill Cranes trumpeted their arrival and landed in a small field to begin their day of collecting insects.

They’re big, they’re noisy and they can make a mess. The Boat-tailed Grackle is also beautiful, especially when the morning sun shows the striking iridescent plumage of the male.

The winter months signal breeding time for many of our water birds. A Great Blue Heron has begun to build a nest of sticks on the shore of a lake. We’ll check on its progress in the coming weeks.

Brown Pelicans are normally associated with the coast but our location an hour inland has several local populations who remain here all year. This trio was just rousing from their nightly roosting spot.

Many Eastern Phoebes find central Florida to their liking and remain all winter as thousands of their relatives continue on to South and Central America. We appreciate their beauty, their calls and most importantly, their insatiable appetite for bugs!

A bit of rain a few days prior to our count day provided just enough wet areas to attract this pair of Wilson’s Snipe. The rain softens the ground sufficiently for worms and other subterranean life forms to become vulnerable to the long probing beaks of the Snipe.

Not one to miss out on an easy meal, a Killdeer followed the Snipe around hoping for leftovers.

One of the most prolific blooms we enjoy during the winter season is the incredible yellow of the Burmarigold (Bidens laevis). It tends to grow in masses around the edges of ponds and lakes. The Latin name provides a hint to the other name applied to this plant, “Smooth Beggartick”, first cousin to Spanish Needles (B. alba). But someone saw those bright flowers and thought it reminded them of Marigolds. Who am I to argue?

This female American Kestrel refused to turn around so it seemed like a good opportunity to admire her colorful back and tail plumage.

A local rancher graciously allows us to survey his pasture each year. It consists of about 200 acres and has a small lake fed by a creek in the middle of it all. Some of the residents were quite curious about us.

The Red-bellied Woodpecker is by far the most abundant breeding woodpecker in Florida.

Near the lake in the pasture a female Belted Kingfisher is hoping for a late afternoon dinner.

Migratory Palm Warblers seem to be everywhere at this time of year. They are one of our most numerous visiting songbirds during winter.

Although the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher breeds in our area, many others migrate in for the winter and the little bug vacuum cleaners seem to inhabit every tree in the county.

Just as we were about to head back to the barn and end our long day, a flock of nearly 50 American Robins flew into a group of Chinaberry Trees (Melia azedarach) lining the lake. It was a pretty dramatic climax to a really great day of birding!

We came. We saw (and heard). We counted. And we will do it all again in a few days. Stay tuned …..

Enjoy your search for a natural place and come back for a visit!

32 Comments on “Coming To Our Census – Part The First

  1. GAH! Steve beat me to “avian menagerie”! 🙂 I thought I was so clever. It is a great start to your census and nice play on words too. The beggar tick didn’t make it into your header, at least at this late date, so I thought it might be a “birdmarigold”. Probably would have been there should I have commented sooner than now.


    • When adept wordsmiths such as the Two Steves use the same clever description, we know we are in the presence of true literary talent.

      “Birdmarigold”. I like that. No worries. The stuff is so abundant it will very likely show up again in a future blog.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Howdee Wally and Gini. I applaud your joint staying power in doing it from dawn to dusk in those temperatures and accompanied by the sound of whips – the birding that is. At the moment the best I can manage is half a day before my tired old bits and pieces have to stop for a while. I must say though that Sue never complains as long as there’s a G and T somewhere in the deal.

    I am sure that a Wilson’s Snipe should I ever see one would give me a real problem in IDing from a Common Snipe except that the Wilson’s appears to have a marginally longer bill? Perhaps we should both try harder to find our respective major rarities and thereby make a name for ourselves on our respective rarity finders’ notice board? You first.

    Great Kestrel pic.

    In other news. You will be delighted to hear that from today Britain has a new Minister of the Crown whose brief is to cover “Energy Security and Net Zero”, but no one in NikNaks “government” has yet cottoned on that the two titles are entirely contradictory.

    The Average Joe can not afford an EV and will not give up their petrol and diesel cars so easily. Net Zero is a joke concept pushed by China and India while desperately trying to outpace each other in building huge numbers of fossil fuelled power stations while watching the West become the Third World.

    It’s granddaughter Michelle’s 12th birthday very soon. We just put more £s in her savings account via the Jupiter India Accumulation Fund!


    • Staying power, working up a sweat, the sound of whips. And some wonder why we enjoy birding!

      I suppose location might help with the snipe identification. We could listen to its call for a hint of an accent.

      I have been called a rare bird, but I seldom see such a thing so a notice board may be of little use for me as no one would notice my name. On the notice board. Bored yet?

      I think we have something similar to your new Minister, except the job is performed by a committee of 12. Our goal is to save energy by reducing that number to net zero. I’ll update you on our progress.

      The West’s rush to become a Third World society is breathtaking in scope and speed. I can hardly wait. Dinner over an open fire. All these spiffy roads will make wonderful horse cart pathways.

      Happy Birthday to Michelle! It does seem a bit severe to force her to travel to Jupiter via India to retrieve her funds. But it may teach her the value of a pound.

      All is well here. Good weather, good birding, good partners. Anything else we simply ignore.


  3. Great collection of birds and thanks for participating in the count. Great light on that red-shouldered hawk and congrats on getting a BG gnatcatcher to stand still for more than a microsecond! I covered the boat’s noisy cousin recently, will probably feature this species encountered during our latest visit to Texas just to round out those noisy fliers.


    • Thank you, we have fun during the annual counts or else we probably wouldn’t do it!
      Life’s too short to do stuff that ain’t fun.

      Gnatcatchers can be a challenge, but for a plain-looking bird they sure are pretty.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Catchy title! Very nice photos, most of which include habitats. I took part in Christmas Counts in New Mexico but never in Florida. This year the counts in Hartford County faced record below-zero temperatures on a day when I dared not venture outside.


  5. The Robins in the China berry tree would be beautiful printed and framed. Probably all 900 of your photos would be! We sure are seeing a lot of birds right now. We hiked yesterday and hundreds of Sandhill Cranes flew overhead…wave after wave of them. It’s a good time to be in Florida for all kinds of reasons!


    • We totally agree that it’s a good time to be in Florida! Of course, for us, that would be ALL of the time!

      With the cranes moving north, Spring can’t be far away.


  6. Always great to take part in a bird census of any kind, Wally. I have done it many times and understand the satisfaction involved – but if I never have chili again at a CBC wrap-up it will be too soon! Wonderful pictures here.


  7. I admire your stamina, Wally, and congratulate you on your impressive recording efforts. I am intrigued by your mention of the all-terrain-vehicle – it sounds like great fun.

    The markings on that Red Cornsnake are wonderful.

    Things continue to move in the right direction here – I just wish I could find time to get out and about! My very best wishes to you and Gin – – – Richard


    • Thank you Richard.

      The ATV was generously provided by our rancher friend which made covering his 200 acres (80 Hectares) of mostly open pasture extremely convenient.

      Snakes always give me an initial reaction of hesitation but when one remains long enough to be admired I’ always impressed by their beauty. The venomous ones have me writing thank you notes to makers of bins and long lenses.

      Don’t worry, the outdoors is nothing if not patient. It will wait for you to take care of life’s important tasks. Besides, you have your legions of fans telling you what it’s like out there every day!

      Gini and I hope you and Lindsay have a great new week.


  8. Thank you for sharing some of your beautiful, heartwarming sightings from a cool December day. Kudos to both of you for having put in an entire day of birding for the CBC. I usually count only for about half a day, but now I feel like a slacker. 😊


  9. It’s not everyone who can pull off two subtle puns in one title. I’m sure the consensus here will be that your photos are glorious, partly because you’re so good at coming to your senses and heading into the field(s)!

    It never occurred to me that brown pelicans would roost in trees. Herons and egrets, of course — but pelicans? I don’t know where I thought they went at night, but it wasn’t trees. That’s interesting.

    The last time I saw a flock of robins, they were feeding on Chinaberries. I read that birds and cattle are the only creatures that can safely feed on the berries. On the other hand, one person did turn the Chinaberry into literature: Rodney Crowell, with his terrific book about growing up poor in Houston titled Chinaberry Sidewalks.

    Every time I visit the Brazoria refuge, about a mile past Bastrop Bayou there’s a Kingfisher sitting in the same spot on a wire above a ditch. I’ve seen a Kingfisher there for years; it seems they live long enough that I might be seeing the same bird. Here’s a fun fact from All About Birds: “The oldest known fossil in the kingfisher genus is 2 million years old, found in Alachua County, Florida.”


    • It’s not everyone who can recognize my silly puns!

      Brown Pelicans will also nest on the ground. We should see nest building start any day now.

      We used the new hard chinaberries as slingshot ammunition. Half a dozen at a time was as good as a shotgun!

      I think I saw that Alachua Kingfisher when I was a kid fishing in that area about that time. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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