Saturday, January 28, 2012

'Tis the Season: My CBC no. 5: The ACE Basin

         Ahhhh!  The ACE Basin is indeed one of my favorite places in the Lowcountry!  For the last 4 years, I have been able to participate in the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) there.  This season's count was scheduled for Sunday, January 1.  Thus, whatever birds I saw there would be my first birds for the new year 2012 bird list!  And the ACE is a bird-rich environment so I was sure to add many birds to my new list.

View of former rice field -- now an impoundment managed for wildlife -- ACE Basin -- January 1, 2012

          I last posted about birding in the ACE with a 2-part series in November entitled, Donnelly WMA -- A Favorite Birding Site: Part One and Part Two.  In Part One, I described the ACE Basin as such:

The ACE Basin, the watershed area of the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Rivers, represents one of the largest estuaries  of largely undeveloped land on the East Coast.  The conservation of this area results from a coalition among several government agencies and conservation groups working with private land owners to preserve the rural character of the area and thereby to conserve large tracts of land for wildlife and outdoor recreation.

Because the ACE is a large area that encompasses both private and public land holdings, many of us were assigned to bird on private land.   The ACE Basin CBC group has been accorded special permission by several property owners to count birds on their land.  As such, our team (composed of Ann Shahid -- our leader, Andy Harrison and myself) was given two such properties to bird -- both of which are former plantations.  Because these properties are not open to the public and because I do not have the owners' permissions to blog about or to post representative photos of them, I will not reveal the names of these properties or publish identifying photos.  Instead, I will blog about the experience of the day in general terms and will show a few photos of the birds and birding activity.  The birds that we found on these properties are not unique to these particular properties.  They can be found on many of the public lands that are open to visitors in the ACE Basin.  The public sites are:
 I suggest clicking on the links to each site to learn more about the place, it's potential for birding, and each site's visiting hours.  For an overall view of the 15 mile count circle for the ACE Basin, you can view a map here on the Carolina Bird Club site.

        The day began early, and a bit chilly -- 36F -- Brrrr!, with a 7 am rendez-vous in Jacksonboro.  After receiving our assignments, maps and instructions as to where to find particular birds, we set off for the first property.  This is an area that I have birded in the past so I was familiar with it.  We experienced an intense quietness when we arrived at our first stop -- a swamp of cypress and tulepo trees.  Gradually, we began to hear a few birds here and there chirping.  But as the sun began to rise and the light began to filter down the bare tree trucks, the swamp and adjoining field came to life with multiple species of birds.  They were suddenly EVERYWHERE -- chirping and flitting about with a spunky energy!  It was birdy to an extreme!  I had difficulty focusing on any one bird because others would flit by and distract me.  "There's another Ruby-Throated Kinglet -- no maybe I already counted that one."  We found in that one spot Pileated Woodpeckers, Downies, 6 Blue-Headed Vireos (more in one location than I have ever seen!), American Goldfinches, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Northern Cardinals, Yellow-Rumped Warblers, Golden-Crowned Kinglets, Eastern Bluebirds, Hermit Thrush, some Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers and the list continues.  Wow!  Now that was quite a start!  Eventually, the lively flock of birds moved on and we left that area for another.

         We came to a field that had been so very birdy last year with many Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows and others.  By contrast, this year, we heard some light chip notes but we could only occasionally flush a bird from the grasses.  These birds were simply not coming out.  I doubt that there were nearly as many birds seeking cover as the year before.

Andy phishing for sparrows -- ACE Basin CBC -- January 1, 2012

Ann phishing for sparrows -- ACE Basin CBC -- January 1, 2012

 We did get a few Eastern Meadowlarks in the fields and we had a Bald Eagle and later a Merlin fly over.  We continued through a stable area and here I found several Chipping Sparrows, Bluebirds and a Pine Warbler.  We were also beginning to see some Turkey Vultures, a few small flocks of Red-Winged Blackbirds, and a few Northern Mockingbirds.  We also began to spot more Downies and Northern Flickers.  The American Crows were beginning to raucously call as well.

Turkey Vultures -- ACE Basin CBC -- January 1, 2012
         Next we passed through a wooded area on our way to an impoundment.  In the woods, we continued to find several delightful birds who happily came to investigate when I phished.  I seem to be able to speak Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Carolina Chickadee and Ruby-Crowned Kinglet quite well.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet -- ACE Basin CBC -- January 1, 2012
              Apparently, I do not speak Marsh Wren very well.  We came out onto the dike that led across the impoundments.  Andy and I lagged behind a bit because we both heard the rustling in the marsh grass so typical of Marsh Wrens.  We both phished but to no avail.  So we continued down the dike until again we heard the rustling in the grass and then we would phish again.  Ann, in the meantime, was scanning the water for ducks.  We helped to count the American Coots which were plentiful but again we were distracted by the rustling in the reeds.  I found an immature Bald Eagle perched on a snag and later we saw an adult fly over.  Ann was already at the intersection of the dikes scanning the next impoundment and counting the ducks while Andy and I sighted 4 or 5 Black-Crowned Night Herons with his scope.  We also saw some Black Vultures arrive and land on some snags close to Ann.  A few Great Egrets also flew by.  But still there was the rustling in the marshes close to our feet.  Suddenly, a small rail-shaped bird flew out of the grass a few feet and landed ahead of us, hiding itself quite well in the marsh.  Andy and I hoped to flush it or phish it out into the open again so that we could get a positive identification.  But that bird was not budging.  As we phished, we heard a bit more rustling further down the path and saw the marsh grass move.  We were fairly certain that it was a wren -- but was it Marsh or Sedge?  We continued to phish and the bird continued to move about and chip. Finally, we gave up, we stopped phishing and began talking softly about the possible rail and whether we thought this wren was Sedge or Marsh.  I hypothesized that it was Marsh because I am usually successful phishing out the Sedge Wrens.  As we were talking, lo and behold, out pops the little booger who began chirping to his friends up and down the marsh -- who chirped in response, as he eyeballed us with seeming indignation.  It was indeed a little Marsh Wren who apparently did not like being ignored?!  We joined up with Ann who reported on the Blue-Winged Teal that she counted -- and we compared notes on the Black-Crowned Night Herons, Great Egrets, and Black Vultures.  When Ann returned with us to the area where the rail had landed, she played on her iPod a couple of different rail calls based on our description of the bird.  And the little fellow responded with a nearly identical repetition to the Virginia Rail call!  So there we had it, a Virginia Rail!

            After leaving that area, we birded some fields where we found an American Kestrel.  We had hoped for some Wilson Snipe and more Eastern Meadowlarks in that area but they were absent.

American Kestrel -- ACE Basin CBC -- January 1, 2012
           This sunny morning had warmed up nicely and we could remove layers.  Next we found a place to eat lunch overlooking a marsh.  While eating, we saw a couple of Northern Harriers and a couple of Bald Eagles and more Black Vultures and a few Turkey Vultures.  In the marsh, I was able to phish up some Song Sparrows.  After lunch, we continue to another low-lying wooded area where we found an Eastern Phoebe, several White-Throated Sparrows, American Goldfinches, Yellow-Rumped Warblers (of course), and a Red-Bellied Woodpecker among others.  We continued up a hill to an area that was mixed agricultural fields, hardwoods, pine and burned woodland.  There we had a surplus of White-Throated Sparrows and some Chipping Sparrows as well as a few Mourning Doves.

            Realizing that we had yet another property to visit, we decided to leave this property and head out to the other.  None of us were familiar with this nest property.  Following directions received from the compilers of the count, we took a shortcut across Donnelly WMA -- not part of our bird count territory, to reach the other property.  In Donnelly, in the fields approaching the utility sheds, I spied this resident American Kestrel (he is nearly always there), who is probably more used to gawking photographers trying to take his picture, and so he did not fly away when I drove past and posed quite nicely for his photo shoot!

American Kestrel -- Donnelly WMA -- ACE Basin CBC -- January 1, 2012
             We arrived at the next property and began our count there.  The area along the river was rather quiet and we only picked up a few Forster Terns, Brown Pelicans, a Northern Cardinal and a Red-Breasted Merganser.  We then continued past some agricultural fields lined by grand Live Oaks where we found Song and White-Throated  Sparrows, Carolina Wrens, a couple of Eastern Towhees and a few Eastern Bluebirds. Eventually, we continued down a long road along which the habitat varied from hardwood to Longleaf Pine and then old rice impoundments.  In the areas of the pines, we found a large flock of approximately 70 Rusty Blackbirds!  Unfortunately, I could not get a decent photo of them.  Closeby, we also frequently saw  Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, Downy Woodpeckers and a couple of Red-Headed Woodpeckers!  And in the grasses under the pines, the number of sparrows popping up was simply incredible!  We were running out of light though and not able to spend more time in those grasses trying to ID the sparrows, the majority of which appeared to be White-Throated, Swamp, and Song Sparrows.  But we had been given a specific task of trying to find ducks in this impoundment towards the end of this long road.  How I would like to go back and investigate that area further!  We came to our last stop and explored the impoundment area a bit on foot.  As we crossed through the woods to the impoundment, we saw at least 4 more Red-Headed Woodpeckers!  At the impoundment we found a chattering Belted Kingfisher, an Eastern Phoebe and this handsome Bufflehead.

Bufflehead -- ACE Basin CBC -- January 1, 1012

Bufflehead at sunset -- ACE Basin CBC -- January 1, 2012
              As we explored the area further, we found some Greater Yellowlegs, more Bufflehead, several Tri-Colored Herons, and an Otter!  We also flushed a flock of about 40 Gadwall.  The light had dissipated such that we could not longer effectively bird.  Being concerned that the owners of the property might lock the gate and lock us in, we decided it was in our best interest to leave.

             My personal tally for the day was 65 birds and I know that our territory count was a bit higher as I did not see all the birds that Andy and Ann saw.  Those two are great birding partners and we worked well together to find the birds.  The properties were beautiful and the birds fascinating.  I look forward to birding with Ann and Andy again and to my next opportunity to return to the ACE!  What a great way this was to start the New Year!   

1 comment:

  1. Great article. Great birding in beautiful places.
    Ann Shahid