Christmas is for counting birds

Looking for a different way to enjoy birds and the outdoors with a fun group during the holidays? Why not try the Audubon Christmas Bird Count in one of the three local count circles?


The Christmas Bird Count is a century-old event hosted by the National Audubon Society. It’s grown to be an international activity in which even novice birdwatchers can join in the collection of local bird data.

The CBC process revolves around the concept that, for one midnight-to midnight period, a group of birders will try to identify as many bird species and to count as many birds as possible within a fixed 15-mile diameter circle. A local “compiler” organizes the effort, assigns teams to check certain areas, and collates the data for submission to NAS. Each year’s counts are done within a few weeks in December and early January. Many of these counts have been done for decades!

There are five local CBC circles. These are:

  • Chattahoochee National Forest/Songbird Management Area – December 15
  • Carters Lake – January 2
  • Amicalola Falls – January 3
  • Dalton – To be scheduled
  • Blue Ridge – To be scheduled.

The Chattahoochee NF count is centered on the southwest corner of the Cohutta Wilderness, which is just to the west of the Mountaintown drainage. Indeed, part of its circle covers Mountaintown. The Carters Lake count focuses on a point near the lake. Amicalola Falls is centered on a spot to the south of Amicalola Falls State Park. The Dalton count was centered on a point northeast of downtown.

Some quick local CBC facts:

  • The Dalton and Chattahoochee counts have been done for many, many years. The CBC data site indicates that there are results for the Dalton circle as far back as 1942. I believe that Dalton was started by Ann Hamilton
  • One of Hamilton’s protegees, Harriett DiGiola, assumed responsibility for the Dalton CBC and also compiled the the Chattahoochee count
  • Years later, Harriett’s own proteges, Phil Riner and Josh Spence, compiled the Dalton CBC and the Carters CBC, respectively
  • The Amicalola CBC is compiled by renowned ornithologist Georgann Schmalz and local birder Theresa Hartz
  • The Blue Ridge CBC is compiled by Tom Striker, birder and a co-owner of Blue Ridge Bird Seed Company.

Participation requires no experience. You only need a pair of binoculars, some warm clothes, and a desire to have fun while working with more experienced birders. Contact one of the local compilers as soon as possible to get on the roster so you can be assigned with folks with more practice. Pre-registration can be done through the national CBC site. You also don’t have to bird the full 24 hours or even all day. Be sure to let the compiler know how long you’re available. Try to make the the end-of-day round up or “count down,” though. It’s usually a great potluck dinner or a meal at which the different teams turn in their results and swap stories about “best birds” seen or high counts of particular species.

I’ve always found that the CBCs were a great way to learn more about birds and birdwatching with a great group of folks. It’s also a good way to network your way to finding better bird watching sites. Try one this year!


Autumn glides by

We are well into autumn. Indeed, we’re less than a month shy of the winter solstice.

Leaves hang on a bit longer on this young Maple.

With November also comes the peak of the “rut,” or mating season, of the White-tailed Deer. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources posts a neat map to see when the rut occurs around the state.

Dawn and I got a couple of glimpses of the rut over the past week. We saw many more antlered bucks crossing the roads than in previous weeks. The trail cams also picked up more antlered bucks following does than earlier in the fall. Our return drive home Friday was interrupted when one antlered buck was being pursued across the road by another. And Dawn spotted what appears to be a deer “rub” on an Alder growing in the creek bottom.

A deer “rub,” or a tree on which a White-tailed Deer has scraped its antlers and face in order to mark a territory or to remove “velvet” from growing antlers. 

So, our goal now is to start looking for deer “sheds,” or the deer antlers once the bucks lose them. According to the MSU DeerLab at Mississippi State University, the bucks undergo a post-mating decline in their testosterone levels. This drop triggers the activity of special cells that dissolve the boundary tissue between the antler and skull. The antlers can be “cast” or “shed” within a day or two. And within a few weeks, fresh antler growth begins for the next autumn mating period.



Some last sightings of the season

As I said in my recent unscientific forecast, the turtle season is over. Well, almost. It turns out that there’s still at least a little activity even here. Bob Burgess reported in that he’d rescued one from the road two weeks ago, and prior to that a neighbor in Dover Falls let Patti O’dell know about a box turtle that had passed away in the neighbor’s yard after a couple of days of immobility. Turtles in the Piedmont are also still stirring, if the Chattahoochee Nature Center Wildlife Department reports are any gauge. Nevertheless, as temperatures falls, these guys will go to their forms for the winter nap. Please let me know if you happen to see one any time!

“Herpy Tuesday” from Zion Hill

The road that passes in front of Zion Hill Baptist Church is always good for “herps,” or amphibians and reptiles, on rainy early mornings. The little creek often overflows the road, creating a through-way for frogs and salamanders. Today was no exception despite the autumn season. A drive though in the pre-dawn revealed what appears to be a Seal Salamander (Desmognathus monticola) a denizen of Blue Ridge creeks. These guys are a good source of protein for black bears, who probably enjoy a rubbery salamander over crunching insects.  

Salamanders are a big part of the southern Appalachian food web. They make up a lot of the total protein mass on the forest floor. They create that protein by consuming many, many times their own body weights in invertebrates. Most of those invertebrates will have spent their lives chewing up the fallen leaves on the forest floor.