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Oil Field Christmas Count 

 
 
   Robert Hurt submitted this account of participation in the Sea Rim Christmas Count. Space restrictions prevented it from being published last month- Ed

With a roll of the tumblers and a pull of the lock the gate was open and the 100th annual Christmas Count was on for me. I poised for a moment, the wind in my face, the smell of the salt in my nostrils. I turned to listen for a "small still voice" and what I heard was the marsh. My prayer for the day had already been lifted and I was ready. Already the Ring-billed Gulls and terns were moving out on the Intracoastal Waterway. Off in the distance I could hear the yelping of Snow Geese as they headed out for a days feeding and overhead was the whirring of duck wing as they made their way about. I could only guess as to what they were as it was still quiet dark and an early morning fog hampered my efforts to focus on them.
 I was on my way to the bridge! As I rounded the second curve in the road I came up along side of what this past spring had been a large nesting colony of herons, egrets and cormorants. Now it is a roosting place for the parents and juveniles of those nesters. It was light enough to see the hundreds of Double-crested and Neotropical Cormorants poised in the trees ready to take flight into a new day. Their guttural squawking sounded more like hogs at the trough than birds. I got out of my Jeep, resisting the urge to count them as I knew in a short while they would present themselves in flight for easy counting. I walked down the road a short distance and my early morning presence was making many of the egrets and cormorants nervous enough to fly a short distance away. I noticed one large silhouette, rather upright and bulkier than that of a cormorant not having that long slim look about it. It was sitting high in a hackberry tree on the left side of the road, separated from the rest of the birds. As I moved forward staring at it, it just stared back. Soon though I was to close for comfort and the large rounded wings of a Great Horned Owl set and silently carried him to a more comfortable vantage point away from me. I returned to the Jeep and once again I was headed for the bridge. At the boundary line of the J.D. Murphree Wildlife Area, I stopped to glass a canal that flows out to Keith Lake. The tide was out and the banks were well exposed. Already there were several Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets on the banks of the canal and in its shallow waters along with a Great Blue Heron. An immature Red-tailed Hawk took to the wing, and large numbers of Yellow-rumped Warblers were leaving the trees lining the levee along the canal.
 Underway again, I was determined to make it to the bridge. I don't know what it is about that bridge that mystifies me so but each time I see it I'm in awe of it. It's so huge and it seems out of place here in the marsh. Only some of the older Tallow trees are taller than it. As I pulled up, there it was like an old friend, standing ready to watch the marsh wake up again. For five years now, my Christmas Counts have started here at this spot. Quickly I slipped into my overalls, grabbed my 10x50's and scope and headed up the bridge. It was now about a quarter after seven and looking out over the marsh it didn't appear that the fog was going to be a problem. Large flocks of cormorants were now starting to leave the rookery 2,200, 10, 45. Ducks were heading for Lost Lake 35, 60, 80. Herons and egrets were landing in the marsh grass as well as White and White-faced Ibis. To my west large flocks of White Pelicans were getting up 10, 24, 45. Things were starting to add up. In the distance, harriers could be seen gliding over the marsh looking for a mouse omelet.
It was now about a quarter till eight and I was going to have to stop birding so that I could run back up to the gate to meet some more birders. I must admit I didn't really want to stop. About then I looked down the road and saw a couple of pick-ups headed my way. I held on and sure enough they pulled up and parked. It was Joe Tibbs, Jack Baugh and John Haynes. To my thinking this was a good team of birders. Joe and Jack, from talking with them, are fairly new to this type of birding. Today would prove to be interesting, as this was their first time on a Christmas Count. They took the birding class at Lamar this past fall and are active birders having made numerous birding trips in the area. I've have been birding with them a couple of times now and we were just here in the oil field a few weeks ago on a field trip. John Haynes of course is no stranger to the GTAS and birding in this area. As the day progressed John shared stories with us about time spent in this same marsh as a youth with his father.
 The four of us gathered together on top of the bridge and at once started keeping track of what we were seeing, and watching the march wake up. About nine o'clock the light was right and the ducks were still heading for Lost Lake and so were we.
 

We made our way down the levee to a spot I had cleared a couple of weeks before on another field trip. As we got closer to the blind glimpses through the cane only served to tease us at what we were about to see. True to its form Lost Lake was full of ducks and coots. Once we had worked our way down onto the shoreline our view opened up and there were ducks from shore to shore. For a moment we were speechless, all's we could see and hear were ducks thousands and thousands. Right off the bat John noticed a large "raft" of Pied-billed Grebes, about 75 we estimated, feeding near us. We noted that neither of us had seen so many Pied-bills in one raft. They acted more like Red-breasted Mergansers the way they were feeding and diving not the usual twos and threes you see in the ditches. As we continued to look out over the lake several more rafts were noted. The sloped red heads of Canvasbacks were all over the lake. Some you could tell had been shoving their heads into the mud on the bottom of the lake to feed causing their heads to look gray. The white foreheads and caps of Wigeon were everywhere. Their green eye patches shown like emeralds in the improving sunlight. I thought to myself how strange to see so many and last year I didn't see a single Wigeon. It was just possible to that at this very moment I was looking at more Ring-necked Ducks than I have seen in my entire life. Mingled amongst all of these ducks every third or fourth head was a coot and mixed through this avian gumbo was a smattering of Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Redheads, Mallards and the purple heads of Lesser Scaup showing as well. I looked long and hard for the green head of a Greater Scaup, but none were to be seen.
 Having come up with numbers that we all agreed with and felt were accurate, we headed back out to the trucks. We spent the next two or three hours birding our way to the back of the refuge or as far as we could go. This is the area where the shallow marsh ponds are at but the wind had come up by now putting the birds down in the grass. Large flocks of Roseate Spoonbills were hiding on the downwind side of the stands of cane. Mixed in with them were numerous egrets and herons. Groups of 10 to 20 weren't uncommon. A flock of a hundred White Pelicans came floating by from the ship channel headed for calmer waters. At the south end of the road we got to watch an Osprey dinning on a fish out on one of the poles in the water. Once he had finished with lunch he showed us how a proper Osprey tided up after a fish lunch. It was this same area that we added nine more  Hooded  Mergansers to our now impressive list. Once we reached the end of the road we got out to walk a ways. I noticed a couple of ducks that were napping and there were the green heads. My mind went straight to Greater Scaup. Yeah one more for the list. I said "Look guys, do ya'll see what I see?" Deep inside I hoped they did. The ducks tails were facing towards us with their heads tucked under their wings so our main field mark was the green head. John felt we need more info to go on before we made a call. We continued to look and discuss what we were seeing and I continued to hope "Greater". Jack whom had held his glasses steady on the birds from the start said "Look one of them is stretching it's wings", and as the bird settled back down it presented it's side to us a little. The brown sides of a male Shoveler shown clear. My hopes of a Greater Scaup flew away as fast as a flushed Quail. It was a rich time of observation and discussion of what field marks we had and didn't have. We looked and then consulted our field guides and then talked some more. This to me was birding at it's best. With a little more walking and a few more numbers we decided to go back up front and check the woods. We added a few more birds to the list and then we settled down to compile things, and discuss numbers.
 It was the late evening hour and the birds were returning to their roost. Numbers decided, we all headed back to the bridge to end the day, and put the marsh to sleep. Wave after wave of Canvasbacks got up off of Lost Lake, 50, 80, 40, they just continued to leave. They headed east to where we knew not? Dabblers got up and headed for the deep marsh. Cormorants returned to the trees that they had nested in this past spring. In twos and threes and tens egrets and herons found their way to sheltered places in the marsh grass. They got a last bite to eat and found a place to settle down and sleep, sheltered in the grass out of the wind. Soon the light diminished and once again a Christmas count was over. For me, each of the past five years' counts have ended here on this bridge. We all began to depart for the day was over. For me though that still small voice that the Bible speaks of called to me once again. I stood in simple awe of it all and said "Good Night", I'll see you soon!
Robert Hurt