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Christmas Bird Count

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

I had the unique privilege to explore an undeveloped barrier island “Murphy Island” in Charleston County this past week. This Island is managed by the South Carolina Department of Nature Resources and is designated for duck hunting during the winter season. The Christmas Bird Count has permission to count the birds on this special day. The Christmas Bird Count is a census of birds performed annually by volunteers and administered by the National Audubon Society.

The cold morning started in the dark with Owls hooting in the distance. As I added layers of clothing and assembled my gear for the day the sun illuminated the horizon with the most beautiful yellows and oranges against dark blues. It was going to be a beautiful clear and calm day. This year I was fortunate to be accompanied by a local Wildlife Biologist who is an expert at identifying birds. We embarked the boat and headed out to the starting point on Murphy Island. The count began on a recently rebuilt dike, the mud was dry and cracked. Walking required a little more effort in order to avoid crevices in the mud, it was almost like walking on another planet. Birds were present immediately, egrets, ducks and a variety of waterfowl in the distance. And as if it was a sign that a great day was ahead two beautiful pink Roseate Spoonbills flew past to begin our bird count. Above the horizon appeared a winding trail of large birds in the low lit sky. After a closer look through the binoculars it was a neat formation of American White Pelicans! We counted over 250 White Pelicans for the day, these massive and majestic birds are always an exciting sight. We continued on our trek over the cracked mud of the dike system, counting hundreds of ducks. The most prevalent ducks were Green-winged teal and Ruddy Ducks, we counted over 400 individuals for each species. We also observed Gadwall, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Mottled Duck, Bufflehead, and Hooded Merganser. While counting the ducks we found groups of Snow Geese on the water. And as we approached the end of this dike a vast cloud of birds took shape over the tree line, and to our surprise the majority of these birds were Snow Geese, we counted over 380 in flight! Before we left this impoundment area we were graced with the Ker-wee call of a Sora. Ahead, the wooded trail yielded a bunch of different birds including a Great Horned Owl, Ruby and Golden crowned Kinglets, 4 species of Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, Chickadees, Towhees, Myrtle Warblers, and Cardinals. Under the trees we heard the chirping whistle of a Bald Eagle, we may have been near its nest so we continued down the trail. After the wooded trail we took a breather and had a brief lunch break. Rejuvenated from lunch we continued on the dike system adjacent to the beach. We counted more sparrows and several other birds in the brush, my fellow birder recognized a sharp chip of a nearby Orange-crowned Warbler. And sure enough a grayish Orange-crowned Warbler briefly revealed itself atop the brush. Further down this dike we encountered a flurry of song birds including Pine Warblers, Downy Woodpeckers, and Blu-gray Gnatcatchers. We were getting closer to the North corner of the Island and now we had a clear view of the South Santee River meeting the Atlantic Ocean. A small group of sea ducks were resting in the distance, through scope views they turned out to be Black Scoters, a White-winged Scoter and a Common Eider! This was a great group of birds to add to the bird count! We had one more dike to walk before heading to the pickup spot on the beach. This dike is rarely walked and was very overgrown but we pushed through and added more ducks, egrets, cormorants, gulls, and pelicans, to the bird count. We also found a Black-crowned Night Heron roost with 36 herons present. The dike did not connect to the beach area so we forcefully navigated through brush and mud to get to the dunes on the other side. As we made it to a clearing there was a lot of small bird activity, my colleague noticed a small dark bird with white edges on the tail feathers. The bird was a Dark-eyed Junco which is a common bird but unique for this habitat so a great addition to the count. We finally made it to the beach and concluded our portion of the Christmas bird count. We covered 5 miles in just under 6 hours all on foot, counting 80 species of bird with over 3000 individuals!

Happy Birding!


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