Closings and delays

Bird lovers scour designated areas in annual event at Tanglewood Park

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Bill Gifford, right, points out a bird to Don Lendle, center, and Ron Morris, left, during the Annual Christmas Bird Count in Tanglewood Park in Clemmons, NC, Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015. Twelve crews of about 50 birders fanned out across the county to take part in the annual count, sponsored by the Audubon Society. (David Rolfe/Journal)

CLEMMONS, N.C. — There’s a quick flash across the sky, and all four men standing on the Little Walden Trail at Tanglewood Park reach just as quickly for their binoculars, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

Viewfinders toward the tree where the flash disappeared, and then a sighting.

“It’s a yellow-bellied sapsucker,” calls out Bill Gifford.

The woodpecker identifiable by its red head and titular belly is marked on the list – officially counted in the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.

It was the 115 th installment of the annual event, a series of more than 2,300 counts taking place across North America and parts of South America between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Volunteers – more than 60,000 total and about 50 in Forsyth County – scour their given area and count all of the birds they see during one day. The information is collected by the Audubon Society and is used for research and conservation purposes.

Aside from collecting valuable information, the bird count is also just a good time for birders.

“It’s a great hobby,” said David Disher, a birder since 1981 who was leading a team at Salem Lake through the mist on Saturday morning. “Anywhere you can walk out in the fresh air, you can bird watch.”

Saturday, though, teams of birders had very specific places to watch. The Christmas Bird Count specifies 15-mile-wide circles for each count.

The Winston-Salem circle is centered on the intersection of Business 40 and Silas Creek Parkway. To the east, it reaches to Salem Lake – a good spot for ducks, herons and other waterfowl. To the west, it encompasses Tanglewood Park – great for birding because of its varied and preserved habitats.

Ron Morris was leading a team of four at Tanglewood Saturday. He, Gifford, Matt Wangerin and Don Lendle spotted (or heard) 48 different bird species by the end of their day, and counted hundreds of individual birds. They counted plenty of Canada geese and heard Chickadees a-plenty, but they also lucked out with sightings of more uncommon birds, like the spectacular Pileated Woodpecker.

“Now that’s a great bird,” Gifford said.

The group heard its distinct call first. After a minute of scanning, Gifford spotted the large woodpecker’s distinct red crest up in the upper branches of trees in the Arboretum at Tanglewood.

“I love seeing that bird,” he said.

Susan Disher said there’s been a lot of change to bird habitats in Fosyth County since she and her husband started bird counting in 1981.

“They’ve built apartments and houses in areas we used to go to see particular species,” she said.

David Disher has literally written the book on birds in Forsyth County.

“We’re on the fifth edition,” said Disher of his book, Birding Guide to Forsyth County.

Disher said he’s been able to document some of the changes to the area’s bird population.

“There are numerous birds we’ve lost,” Disher said. “We’ve lost Loggerhead Shrikes, Bobwhites, Barn Owls.”

Morris has been bird watching for 35 years and said he, too, has seen changes over that time. One of his favorites, the Wood Thrush, has seen its population decline by 60 percent over the past 20 years.

“It’s a wonderful bird,” he said. “To look at, they’re kind of drab, but they have the most wonderful song. It sounds like spring.”

Species and individual bird totals from Saturday’s count will not be compiled until later this week, but Morris said he expects the weather will depress this year’s count from the last, when 88 species and more than 14,000 birds were counted.

While birds around the world are threatened by habitat loss and climate change, all the news isn’t bad. Some birds, like Bald Eagles, have rebounded Morris said. Bald Eagles hit a low point in the 1970s, but the banning of a pesticide that caused reproductive failure when introduced to the birds’ food chain and increased conservation efforts turned that population around. They can now be seen fairly regularly in this area, Morris said.

The birds themselves aren’t the only thing that’s changing in the birding community. Technology is also playing a part. While out on the annual count Saturday, smartphones were second only to binoculars in birders’ toolkits. Apps like BirdLog, allow birders to easily keep track of their findings and report them to a nationwide birding database called eBird used by scientists. There is also an Audubon Society app with a catalogue of birds for identification assistance. It even plays bird calls. Morris pulled his iPhone out on the Little Walden Trail, trying to coax out a Hermit Thrush hiding in the brushy overgrowth of woods. The shy bird was a good “get” for the group, though he wasn’t swayed to make another appearance when his song rang out.

Before slipping the phone back in his pocket, Morris played one more – one he’ll be looking forward to in the coming months.

“Ahh,” Morris swooned at the song of the Wood Thrush. “The voice of spring.”