On Friday, December 16th, I participated for the first time in the Magnolia/Lake Columbia Christmas Bird Count. This was a good day for surveying birds. There was minor winds, overcast, and cold but not too cold. The high was about 60 F and the low was 30 F. A pretty big swing.
I started the day at Lake Columbia, THE birding locale of Columbia County. I stopped at a little marshy area and listened. There was a slightly familiar coughing call coming from the reeds. I pished for what seemed like an eternity and a little bird flew to the edge of the reeds. I scanned the edge of reeds as it moved here and there. It flew about for a while and then finally settled. I got the binoculars on it and identified it as a Sedge Wren. There were at least two others calling from nearby reed beds. I snapped a few pictures before the little booger flew deeper into the reeds.
My pishing had attracted a Carolina Wren to a nearby, defoliated willow. It pished right back at me. A nearby Ruby-crowned Kinglet gave its rattling call, while Swamp and Song Sparrows chatted throughout this area. I heard a distant White-breasted Nuthatch giving its repeated “yank” call. I moved on to a causeway of Lake Columbia and parked. I walked the causeway and watched both the shallow, weedy lake and the shrubby bank. There were almost 50 Ring-necked Ducks sitting on the lake. A strafing run by a Cooper’s Hawk scattered these ducks and flushed four Wilson’s Snipe up from some emergent vegetation. I would have never seen these snipe if it hadn’t been for the hawk. I scanned the banks and found a very energetic Orange-crowned Warbler. With it were the shier sparrows: White-throated, Swamp, and Song. I reached the end of the causeway and took a last glance at the lake. There were several Pied-billed Grebes and a lone American Coot, my only coot of the day.
Throughout the day I hit a lot of county roads. They mainly covered pasture lands and pine-deciduous forests. There were several good birds to be had along these roads. Along one, CR-55, I found a nice hedge of nasty privet. There were White-throated Sparrows calling and singing. Blue Jays chatted in higher branches. A Turkey Vulture lazily soared overhead. The privet was in fruit and had dark drupes hanging in clusters throughout the shrub. Attacking one of these clusters was a dark, medium-sized songbird. The shape of this bird led me to either a mimid or a turdid (mimic-thrush or actual thrush). It moved around through the flexible privet branches, but was driven deeper into the hedge when an Eastern Gray Squirrel lunged at it. Why the squirrel dove at the bird, we may never know. I did not think that squirrels cared for privet drupes but apparently they are crazy for them. As the bird flew I caught glimpses of dark gray on the body. It was too small to be a mockingbird, to gray to be a thrasher, and its tail was too short to be a thrush. I had an idea what it was, but had doubts, as this would be an aseasonal record. My suspicion was confirmed when I played the “mew” call of the Gray Catbird and had one fly out and pose for me. It also called back with a “mew” of its own. I snapped a quick, terrible photo of this marvelous, aseasonal bird and left it alone.
Further on down this road I came across a mixed flock of birds foraging half in a pasture and half at the forest’s edge. There were Northern Cardinals dashing here and there. Golden-crowned Kinglets cried “see-see-see” while American Goldfinches laughed, “per-chick-oree.” A Carolina Chickadee gave an alarm and birds hit the deck. Dark-eyed Juncos flew from the pasture to the forest, seeking cover. White-throated Sparrows abandoned their leaf litter and scurried to brambles. I looked for a hawk or other aerial threat but could find none. I heard thrashing in the bramble, and assumed that either the threat was terrestrial or it was a false alarm. I believe the latter assumption was correct because the birds picked right up after a few seconds of timidity. Finishing up this route, I head over some train tracks and flushed several smaller sparrows to cover in the trees. I stopped and waited, hoping they would fly back to ground. A few did after a while. The sparrows were small and the grass tall. I counted a couple of Chipping Sparrows and at least one White-throated Sparrow. After a while a few cardinals flew to nearby ground.
Later, I headed to a sewage pond in the small town of Waldo. I had scouted out this pond a week before the count and had found several diving ducks on it. I stopped the car and peered over the levee to find that the ducks were still present. I counted 139 Lesser Scaup and one Pied-billed Grebe. The diversity was down but the number of individuals was up. In a nearby tract of woods, I heard the “tew-tew” call of a Winter Wren, the only WIWR seen on the day. A tree at northwest corner of the pond held about 12 Cedar Waxwings and a lone American Goldfinch. There was a ditch on the other side of the levee. This ditch was thick with woody and deciduous vegetation. The woody vegetation was black willow and buttonbush. These shrubs held a few Swamp Sparrows and an Eastern Towhee.
Towards the end of the day I made a trip back out to Lake Columbia. Along the way I tried a couple of new roads. I picked up Mourning Doves and a singing Fox Sparrow in a clear cut. I hit a few scrubby fields and came across a good-sized flock of Eastern Meadowlarks. There was a train of about 8 cardinals flying around a nearby neighborhood. I ended up in a pine savanna. There were several birds calling here but I couldn’t hear the one that specializes in pine forests. I played its song and heard only one reluctant response. This Brown-headed Nuthatch gave a few squeaks in response but never got very close to me. They are usually very responsive to playback. I do not like to use a lot of playback because if it is effective, then it really throws the bird off of its routine and brings them out into vulnerable spots. Driving on to Lake Columbia, I stopped around some pastures and picked up two, late additions on power lines: American Kestrel and Loggerhead Shrike. I did not get anything new at Lake Columbia but picked up several more Red-winged Blackbirds and Fish Crows.
This was a great count. It does not see the numbers as some of the other circles in Arkansas, but I had a great time and tallied 66 species. The count overall had 88 species, up from 70 of last year’s count. Highlights of the count overall were: Common Loons, Spotted Sandpipers, Inca Doves, Sedge Wrens, and a Gray Catbird.