For the past few years, Scott Boven has asked Walt Childs and me to join him and his team to do the Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in section II of the Gordonsville, VA area in Louisa County. This can be an unusally productive day, as there are several farm parcels containing large lakes where all kinds of waterfowl can be found, as well as eagles, hawks, owls, and in some years, Sandhill Cranes. In addition, Scott has put in a lot of effort to cultivate relationships with many of the landowners, and this CBC team has permission to access these fields and lakes that are not open to the public.
Walt and I asked Huck Hutchens, and friend of ours who was visiting relatives in the area, to join us. Huck is formerly from this area, but now lives in Texas, where he is the birding guru at the Estero Llano State Park in the lower Rio Grande Valley. We met up with Scott, and his only other team member this year, Donna Shaunesey, around 9:45 in the morning. They had already been doing the CBC from early in the morning. Our first stop was at a new location for this CBC, where we had permission to hike up a steep, wooded trail that overlooked a large lake. Oh no! This lake was almost entirely frozen. All we saw were five American Black Ducks in a small area where the ice had melted. The temperature was in the upper 30's, and forecasted to reach the mid-40s, but there had been sub-freezing temperatures this past week. Would we even come close to previous years' bird totals?
It was very cloudy all day, making photography a challenge. But as we left this first stop, I mentioned to Walt that the clouds might bring out some Short-eared Owls in the afternoon. This species usually emerges at dusk and hunts during the night, but sometimes starts hunting earlier under heavy cloud cover.
Our second stop was at Bracketts, a large historical farm, established in1790, that contains lots of land and a very large lake. Just before entering the farm, we did some birding along the road, where we saw Robins, Cedar Waxwings, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and several other avian species including a Fox Sparrow.
After parking near the lake, we saw that almost the entire lake was frozen, except a small area at the far end, of course, that was loaded with ducks, and a sub-adult Bald Eagle was perched high above the far end of the lake. We hiked along the frozen lake to see what ducks might be there, and saw some good woodland birds on the way down and back.
Sub-adult Bald Eagle
Adult and juvenile Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers
Almost all of the ducks were Mallards, but we also saw a few Green-winged Teals, Gadwalls, and Northern Shovelers.
We did some more birding at Bracketts, and the most unusual sight was a flock of more than 100 Mourning Doves perched in two adjacent trees. At this point, I was eager to move on the fields between East Jack Jouett and East Green Springs roads. This was the best area to see raptors and owls. We parked off of East Jack Jouett and entered a large field where we had permission to bird. Immediately, we saw a Sandhill Crane flying to the north, and a second Sandhill Crane was calling from a ridge line.
We walked down to a large barn where Walt and I had seen owl pellets last winter. The barn door was locked, but we were able to peek into the poorly lit barn through several small openings, and saw an adult Barn Owl perched near the roof.
As we walked the fields, we saw some distant raptors: Red-tailed Hawks, two adult Bald Eagles, and American Kestrels.
Red-tailed Hawk and Bald Eagle
We hiked in the taller grasses, and saw a large flock of Savannah Sparrows, with a few Song Sparrows mixed in.
And then the fun began. One, two, and then three Short-eared owls popped up near to where we were hiking, and then two more a bit farther away. Female Short-eared Owls are orangish-brown underneath, and the males are much lighter. My camera didn't stop for quite a while! Even though it was fairly overcast, I was able to get some decent photos.
At one point, a Northern Harrier joined in the fun.
Short-eared Owl and Northern Harrier
A few times, one of the owls would take a short rest.
Our last stop was at Hawkwood Farm. The large lake was frozen there as well, but we did see a Great Blue Heron out in the middle of the ice. Perhaps it was practicing its figure skating in preparation for the upcoming Olympics :-)
Great Blue Heron
The team ended up with 54 avian species. Not a bad outing for having frozen lakes and only a few waterfowl. Thanks to Scott for inviting us.