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Science & Environment

In Search Of A Screech Owl On The Audubon Christmas Bird Count

122020 Greg Hays Taylor Piephoff listening.JPG
David Boraks
Greg Hayes (left) and Taylor Piephoff use smartphone apps with recordings of bird calls to help in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count in a wooded area near Davidson College.

Birdwatchers from around the region are joining a 121-year holiday ritual this month - the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count. WFAE's David Boraks joined a group Sunday at Davidson College's Ecological Preserve in Davidson.

It's raining just before dawn as three of us head out onto Davidson College's trail network. Taylor Piephoff has been organizing counts in the Charlotte area for many years. It's not about seeing the birds, it's about hearing them, he says.

122020 Piephoff looking up listening 1.JPG
David Boraks
Taylor Piephoff looks for birds during the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count at Davidson College Ecological Preserve.

"We're going to be looking for a specific bird this early in the morning down at the back of the property, an Eastern screech owl, which is kind of hard to come by in Mecklenburg County these days," he says. "We can locate it by voice. And that's why we start when it's dark, or just before dawn. And we can locate it by playing some tapes of its call. Hopefully it will respond in the rain. If it doesn't, then we'll just come back later on in the day."

So what is the Audubon Christmas Bird Count?

"It is a citizen science project where data goes into a national database. Over time, it can give some valuable information on the trends, population increases (and) decreases of our winter birds in the United States," says Piephoff, who works by day as a trainer for the Mecklenburg County health department.

As the sky lightens, we hear more birds. We stop and Piephoff plays a recording of the screech owl using an app on his iPhone. It's a sort of soft trill.

We listen, and there are lots of other birds, but no screech owl.

"So, not hearing any response, but we've got our first birds of the day," Piephoff says. "We've got a Song Sparrow giving a call over here, and I heard a White Throated Sparrow, just prior to the Song Sparrows."

"So the count is off to a start," he says, laughing. "Hopefully by the end of the day, Greg and I will have tallied 70 species."

Greg Hayes is the third member of our group. It's one of 10 groups Piephoff has organized for the 2020 Southern Lake Norman Christmas Bird Count.

Hayes is a bank data analyst by day — and has a data-gathering role this morning, too.

"You'll see me pull out my phone periodically and log in updated counts," he says. "But we record when we start, how long we go for a particular area, the mileage that we walk or drive, if appropriate, the number of species and the approximate count of each species."

122020 Bluebird at Davidson Coll.JPG
David Boraks
A Bluebird perches on a net at Davidson College.

As we walk, I ask Piephoff why this is a good place to look for the screech owl.

"Well, we know it's here. And the reason we know it's here is Dr. Mark Stanback at Davidson has put up a number of screech owl nest boxes here," Piephoff says. "And he's had a successful effort in establishing a small population of screech owls here, or supporting the population that was here, by providing nesting boxes."

We come upon one of those boxes and Piephoff pulls out his smartphone app again and plays that trill.

"When I had it before, I'm pretty sure it was in that tangle right there," he whispers.

Again, there are lots of other birds, including one particularly insistent one.

"What’s that other one we're hearing?" I ask.

"That is a Carolina wren. They sing all winter long, and they're ..." Piephoff stops suddenly.

"Hear it? I think I heard it."

It's barely audible, but there.

"Yeah, that's him. That's an Eastern Screech Owl ... and there's some boxes over there and he might be in a box," Piephoff says to Hayes.

`Eastern Screech Owl
Matt Cuda
File photo of an adult Eastern Screech Owl.

"And that's also where we heard him last year, where that other sort of horizontal power cut went," Hayes replies.

"So, success. Success," Piephoff says.

"That may be the only screech owl out of the 10 groups. That may be the only one that we'll get today, for the count," he says.

Piephoff says the information gathered over time tells a lot.

"It helps monitor trends in bird populations, local bird populations, as well as national. The object is just to survey the same area, year after year, so you can get a picture over time of how our birds are doing. Some decline, some increase, some disappear, some appear," he says. "So a lot of a lot of good information."

Overall he's happy with this year's count. At Davidson College, they've counted 36 species.

"We went back later in the afternoon and turned up a yellow-throated warbler, very rare in the Piedmont in winter. Very surprising," he says.

And across southern Lake Norman, the volunteers tallied a record 103 species. That included two species they've never seen before in the count: the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Bullock’s Oriole.

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count continues nationwide through Jan. 5, 2021.

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