When I told my 10-year-old grandson I was going to the Christmas Bird Count at Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge, he looked at me a little strangely and asked what a Christmas Bird was. Well, we didn’t see any Christmas Birds, but we did see thousands of waterfowl and hundreds of upland birds.
My friend Alice had come up from the beach New Years weekend and as she and I arose at 5 a.m. to temperatures in the mid-teens, I begged her to talk me out of going. I was joking, of course, we’d signed up and we were going.
I’ve attended the count twice before, and still I’m just a birder wannabe. The Mecklenburg Audubon Society organizes the count at the Refuge, which is located off of U.S. 52 in Anson County, and those folks are serious birders.
J.D. Bricken, manager of the 8,000 acre Refuge, was at the maintenance barn when we arrived at 7 a.m. We signed in, got a cup of coffee and waited for our assignment. The waterfowl counters were going to be the first ones heading out and we jumped at the chance to do that. J.D. and Bob Kluttz, president of Friends of the PDNWR, led as we caravanned 15 miles back the way Alice and I had come to 1,000 acres of the protected land that lies across the river in Richmond.
Being from Richmond County, this was an area I had hiked before, but not during the waterfowl season. Heading down into the woods, we stopped first at Andrews Pond. There, we saw our first mallards, ring necks, black ducks, mergansers and widgeons.
As you can imagine, it’s impossible to count the birds individually when there hundreds flying around. J.D. and Bob have done this countless times before, so they’d study the formation for a few seconds and say something like “400 — half mallards, 100 ring necks and 100 black ducks.”
Moving down to the impoundment area, we flushed about 2,000 birds all at once. The impoundment area right along the Pee Dee River consists of fields where corn grew in the summer. There area dikes and a pump station on the river floods the area each year right for the migratory waterfowl season. We kept our position there for more than an hour. It was fascinating for me to watch and learn. The guys were great to describe each bird, so Alice and I could pick them out through our binoculars. To our previous list, we added mergansers, teals, widgeons and others I don’t remember. Just when we were ready to move on, a pair of Tundra Swans flew in. Most of these big birds winter down on the coast, but the Refuge gets just a few. We were thrilled.
Our waterfowl count concluded with over 4,000 on our list and we spent the next three hours walking through the woods and fields looking for upland birds. There were plenty — cardinals, chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, mocking birds, thrushes and many more. As we returned to our vehicles, we were checking out the ducks that had returned to Andrews Pond and we spotted a young bald eagle and a harrier.
Heading back to the barn, we enjoyed some of the best chili I’ve ever had, thanks to Bob, and we heard about the successes of the other teams.
It was an amazing morning for me. It made me more acutely aware of birds and more than ever, it made me wannabe a birder. It isn’t easy. They know the calls, and can pick distinguish one variety of a species from the other just from minute differences in their markings.Audubon Christmas Bird Counts are held over a two-week period every year across the country. Two Greensboro guys on our team were actually heading down that afternoon to Oak Island where Alice lives to a bird count the following day. It’s great fun and educational. To learn more, visit www.audubon.org.