Winter birders, flock together!
Taking a drive or a walk on any given snowy day, you might see a small, feathered flash of color flit across your path. While Pocahontas County is a favorite spot among area bird watchers in the spring and summer months, there are quite a few to see during the winter, too.
Snowy conditions and the lack of foliage this time of year means birds are much easier to spot. And you can even venture out in the comfort of your car if you'd rather not bundle up to search for them.
In early January, a group of dedicated bird-lovers headed out into the chilly winter morning to see just how many birds they could find as part of Pocahontas County's fourth Annual Christmas Bird Count. Organized by the Pocahontas County Nature Club, the group met at Barnett Cabins in Mill Point, where they paired up and set off in their vehicles to count birds within a seven-and-a-half-mile radius.
What they found was that quite a few birds stick around for the winter. And with habitat ranging from the high mountain bogs of the Cranberry Glades to the wide river bottom of Marlinton, the diversity of species in such a small area is impressive says Rob Tallman, of the Division of Natural Resources.
Tallman, formerly the DNR's state ornithologist, is now the Wildlife Manager for the DNR's Cheat Mountain Wildlife Management Area and has helped organize the annual bird count in Pocahontas County. With nearly two dozen annual bird counts around the state, Tallman says the DNR is able to get a good measure of West Virginia's winter bird populations.
While the four years of the Pocahontas County count isn't yet enough to reveal any significant trends, what Tallman says he does see is a healthy, stable population.
And a few surprises turn up with each count.
"We seem to pick up a unique species every year: short-eared owls, barn owls, crossbills" says Tallman.
That's due in large part to the diversity of habitat available in Pocahontas County, but the number of eyes out there also helps. Tallman says the count based in Mill Point draws more participants than most in the state.
"There's a good turn out every year," says Tallman. "A lot of counts in the state just have a few people."
One of the regulars on the Nature Club's count is Beth Bullard. While she and her husband are dedicated birder watchers, most of their activity is in the warmer months, she says.
"We use a lot of feeders at home in the winter," says Bullard. "We don't venture out much this time of year, but I'm impressed by how many you can see in an hour in the car."
During this year's count, Bullard says she identified a total more than 800 birds representing 25 different species.
"There are always a lot more, different birds than you expect," she says. "There are 35 black vultures that roost below Droop Mountain that we found this year. We didn't know about those before."
"And there are more hawks-red shouldered, red tailed, and kestrels-than you might expect," she adds.
Bullard says the birds also behave a bit differently in the winter.
"Winter birds here-and in Virginia and Maryland-have a flocking behavior where downy woodpeckers, chicadees, titmice, cardinals and other species flock and move together through fence rows and forests," she says. "There has to be an advantage to them to do that."
The advantage to bird watchers, of course, is getting to see a variety of species all in one location.
Another regular on the annual bird count, U.S. Forest Service Wildlife Biologist Shane Jones, says seeing so many birds in one day can add a bright spot to the cold winter.
"Any day you can get out and see 24 species in just a few hours of the morning is rejuvenating, at least for me," he says.
If there's a lesson to be learned from the annual bird count, it's that you don't have to go far-or even outside the comfort of your car-to get that feeling.
Simply driving around the quiet streets of Marlinton, count participants found Eastern Towhees, pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers and a golden-crowned kinglet, as well as the plentiful juncos, nuthatches and black-capped chickadees that love a well-stocked feeder.
It's not a bad way to shake off some of that winter-time cabin fever.
2010 Pocahontas County Christmas Bird Count Results
Total species counted: 43
Total individual birds: 1183
A few selected species:
- Dark-eyed junco 198
- Black-capped chickadee 84
- Tufted titmouse 32
- American goldfinch 23
- White-breasted nuthatch 16
- Downy woodpecker 9
- Golden-crowned kinglet 8
- Fox sparrow 4
- Bald eagle 1
- American Robin 1
- Yellow-rumped warbler 1