DURHAM — Heavy clouds obscured the stars as three wise men converged before dawn in a parking lot on the edge of Falls Lake for the annual Christmas Bird Count.
Of all the places they will seek winged creatures between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, this would be the best chance Brian Bockhahn, Paul Scharf and Kyle Kittleberger would have to spot – or at least hear – a snowy owl, a recent addition to the list of birds known to live part or all of the year in North Carolina. The owls have moved south in recent years as their food supply has dwindled in their Arctic homeland.
Using a small speaker hanging off his belt, Bockhahn played a call, and from the dark above his head came answers. A barred owl. A great horned owl.
If there was a snowy owl up there, it didn’t announce itself.
“I was hoping,” Bockhahn said.
Over the next three weeks, more than 1,000 volunteers will fan out on appointed days to take ornithological attendance in the state, working in 15-mile sections such as the ones Bockhahn and his cohorts helped to cover on Sunday. They’ll be in New Bern on Monday and in Pamlico County on Tuesday.
Similar counts will go on across the country and the data will be compiled by the National Audubon Society, which has led the event for 114 years. The count started in 1900 as an alternative to a then-popular Christmas Day slaughter called the “side hunt,” where people chose sides, then went out and shot as many birds of any kind as they could. The team that brought in the most dead birds won.
Besides being a fun outing for birders, the counts provide valuable information about changes in bird populations, migration patterns and ranges, as well as habitat and climate change. Data from Christmas Bird Counts in the 1980s led to conservation measures to protect the American Black Duck.
As the sky lightened over the Durham bird counters, waterfowl left their nests or colonies and dispersed to look for food. Ducks and gulls took flight. Through his scope, Bockhahn could see the curved-neck silhouettes of a flock of cormorants sitting in the water across the lake. A single blue heron stood regally in the shallows a hundred yards from shore.
In the cold stillness of the gray morning, above the sound of trucks traveling on Interstate 85 less than a mile away, red-winged blackbirds cried.
Then Kittleberger spotted something in a cove, and the three men trained their scopes on it. A ring-necked gull?
“Looks more like a lesser,” said Bockhahn, pulling up a birder’s field guide on his smartphone to double-check. “Oh, it’s flying. Look at the wing pattern. That’s a lesser scaup.”
He congratulated Kittleberger for the unusual find.
“That’s probably our big bird for the day,” Bockhahn said.
Like many of those who participate in the counts, Bockhahn, a district educator for the N.C. Division of State Parks, is a longtime birder. So is Scharf, a retired Army colonel who has chased birds all over the globe. He’s seen 4,345 of the world’s 10,000 or so known species. Even Kittleberger, a 19-year-old college student, is a dedicated bird-watcher who can identify dozens of species in flight. All three also study and tally other critters, such as butterflies, dragonflies, moths and hoppers.
Birding is an easy hobby to learn, Bockhahn said, and while it’s possible to spend thousands of dollars on binoculars and scopes, that’s not required. Birders can commit as little or as much time as they want, and can study the species that gather at backyard feeders or, like this trio, hike for miles through swamps to get to more remote areas.
Bockhahn, Scharf and Kittleberger were ready to move on from the parking lot at Hickory Hill Boat Ramp by 8 a.m. and see what they could find on another part of Falls Lake, but they hadn’t seen a bald eagle yet.
Around 8:30 a.m., Bockhahn lifted his binoculars to check out a figure swooping over the tree line on the opposite shore. It was mostly brown, with a six- to seven-foot wing span.
Back to the field guide to call up photos of bald eagles. This one was a juvenile – a teenager, really – probably 3 years old. Soon, a second one appeared above the trees.
The men folded their tripods, set their scopes on their shoulders, and headed out to check off more of their friends on the list.
For more information on the Christmas Bird Count in North Carolina, go to http://www.carolinabirdclub.org/christmas/.