The Audubon Society held their annual Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 16. Now in its 112th year, approximately two-thousand or so different groups and organizations took to the field at the same time to observe the various birds they could find in their designated area.
- The Audubon Society held their annual Christmas Bird Count on Sunday, December 16. Now in its 112th year, approximately two-thousand or so different groups and organizations took to the field at the same time to observe the various birds they could find in their designated area.
One organization that has participated every year since 1982 is the Florence Shelly Wetlands Preserve near Thompson. I had never visited the preserve before and had the opportunity to tag along with Stuart Slocum the event coordinator as he and some other volunteers went on the search for feathery friends.
It wasn't the greatest weather for spending the afternoon in the outdoors, let alone looking for birds. It was cold, raining, and overcast.
More than once on my drive from Hawley to Thompson I said to myself that if no one showed up or if the event ended up being cancelled I wouldn't complain. I usually will venture out excitedly under most circumstances but when off-and-on drizzle is coupled with temperatures hovering just above freezing my desire to comb the forest wanes deeply.
I was the first one to arrive and it looked like I would get to remain in my warm, dry car for another hour as I drove home, but then Stu arrived in his truck. We made introductions and began wondering if anyone else was going to make it.
Within a few moments we were joined by two other birders, Andy Gardner and Trebbe Johnson, both members of the preserve as well. Trebbe filled me in on some of the background surrounding the annual Bird Count.
"The Audubon Christmas Bird Count was conceived in 1900 by Frank M. Chapman," she began, "He was concerned that so many birds were being hunted, and he proposed that citizens band together to protect the birds instead by counting them. For that first event, twenty-five enthusiastic groups counted birds from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California. Since then the Christmas Bird Count has become the longest-running citizen science survey in the world. The data that is collected helps biologists and ecologists to monitor changes in bird populations and take steps to protect them."
Andy is the preserve's chairmen and began to give me some of the history as we began hiking. "The Shelly's donated the land over a period of years in the late 1970s and early 1980s," he informed me, "The first donated area was the Thompson Wetland Preserve. That was about 280 acres. The Nature Conservancy added another 80 or so later on." Preserving the area was of interest to Dr. Robert Shelly and his wife, Florence. The wetlands and surrounding woods were of concern to the family and they had an interest on keeping them from destruction or development. Like many of our wetlands in Northeastern PA, these trace their origin back to the Wisconsinian glacier's retreat some 10-15 thousand years ago. In the summer I suspect that this is an excellent place to see Red-Wing Blackbirds, a summer bird, I doubted we'd see any of these.
"I saw some Bluebirds at my house this morning," Stu told. Odd for this time of year but it gave us a sense of optimism about our quest. Our purpose was to find any birds we could, identify them as accurately as possible, and record them for the Audubon Society's tally. We made our way downhill along the edge of the preserve. A buffer of trees separated the trail we were on form a hay field. We hoped to find some birds in this area. It should have been a good location for many species, transition areas typically are, but the wind and mist mad hearing and seeing anything in the trees almost impossible. The trail was, not many years ago, a dirt road maintained by the township. I noted to Andy how quickly nature had started to reclaim the grade. It was rather swampy and only wide enough for three people to stand abreast. Ahead of us, Stu kicked out some Ruffed Grouse. There was a positive sign!
We continued on, taking a left at an intersection and made our way gradually uphill towards a stand of tall Norway Spruces, stopping along here and there to scan the ground and branches. Several times we heard or saw nothing. We were just about to move on when the wind calmed and I heard some chirping. I stopped the group and we listened and looked. There, the flash of a wing! I spotted…something. I'm no birder. I even admitted to Stu earlier that I can identify the colorful birds like tanagers and jays and the common waterfowl and upland game birds, but the small little grey and brown ones were something of an enigma to me. "Don't worry," Stu assured me, "you just spot them, and we'll take care of the rest." That's just how it played out. The others peered through large binoculars and identified first, a Nuthatch, and then a Brown Creeper. Stu was particularly interested in the Creeper as it was an unusual find for this time of year. What looked like some Black-Capped Chickadees also darted about but wouldn't come close enough to be properly identified before the wind picked up again and all traces of the birds disappeared.
The remainder of the afternoon proved to be unfruitful. Although we made our way around a large chunk of the preserve, the weather and the birds just didn't cooperate. Along the creek that flows through the preserve we found evidence of bear scratchings from several seasons ago. The scarred hemlocks had long since healed. Here and there we stopped looking in earnest for more birds, but after a long pause in a meadow where we thought for sure we'd see something, our venture around the preserve slowly turned into a nature hike as all of us began to take more note of trees, animal activity, and storm damage from the recent hurricane. Trebbe and Stu compared observations concerning Weir Pond that we could see in the distance. Trail projects and other conservation efforts were discussed as we made our way back through the towering stands of Scotch Pines, long past their prime for a Christmas Tree, the trunks were largely limbless and the crowns played in the wind 70 feet above our heads. Even Andy wasn't sure as to their exact origin, but we speculate former property owners may have planted these trees with the intent to harvest them as timber. When native tree populations were depleted by European settlers, many areas were replanted with Scotch Pine as it was one of the most common types of timber used for construction boards in Europe.
Finally reaching the parking area, the four of us chatted briefly before departing. While we were disappointed with the bird turnout, we knew going out we would probably have had poor results. Still in all, we agreed that, in spite of the weather, it was a still an enjoyable thing to tramp around the preserve.
The preserve is open to the public and can be accessed at the trailhead just off Stack Road. An easy access boardwalk begins near the parking lot on Little Ireland Road and meanders through the hemlock forest to a look-out over the marsh. Throughout the summer Florence Shelly Preserve hosts monthly themed walks to study wildflowers, ferns, wetland ecology, dragonflies, and other aspects of natural history found on the preserve. For more information about guided walks and programs call (570) 727-3362 or (570) 879-4244.