Counting birds with Sally O’Byrne

She has run state ornithological society’s Christmas outing in Rehoboth for 10 years
February 4, 2020

Story Location:
James Farm Ecological Preserve
30048 Cedar Neck Road
Ocean View  Delaware  19970
United States

Sally O’Byrne began birding with the Delaware Ornithological Society in 1993. During a recent Christmas Bird Count, she said one of the biggest advantages to experience is knowing which birds to expect in certain areas. When an unexpected noise or bird shows itself, it catches a person’s attention, she said.

Which is why she was excited to hear the call of a wild turkey at her first stop of the morning, she said, standing in the parking lot of VFW Post 7234, at the end of Cedar Neck Road in Ocean View.

“That counts,” she said. “It’s my first bird of the day.”

Started as a way to count birds, not hunt them, the National Audubon Society has hosted Christmas Bird Counts nationwide for 120 years. The Delaware Ornithological Society has been the statewide organizer of Christmas Bird Counts for decades. This year, the society hosted six in the days before and after Christmas – Wilmington, Middletown, Bombay Hook, Milford, Cape Henlopen/Prime Hook and Rehoboth.

Since it began in the 1930s, O’Byrne said, the Rehoboth Christmas Bird Count is the oldest in Delaware. She’s been Rehoboth’s head compiler for the past 10 years. The Rehoboth count wasn’t held annually until sometime in the 1950s, she said, but it’s been happening for almost 100 years.

The ornithological society conducts the bird counts in 15-mile circles. O’Byrne said the Rehoboth circle is interesting, because a lot of it covers water. Beginning at Silver Lake and making its way south, she said, the Rehoboth circle includes Rehoboth and Indian River bays, and a significant portion of the state’s ocean shoreline.

A self-described naturalist, O’Byrne said she got into birding in 1993 after losing an election for Wilmington city council. She said she was pretty comfortable with trees, plants and other areas of the natural environment.

“Birds always seemed too hard,” she said.

The bird counts begin early in the morning. O’Byrne and her counting partner for the day, Curt Davis, are scoping birds in the VFW parking lot by sunrise. O’Byrne heard the turkey at their first stop of the day, the parking lot of the James Farm Ecological Preserve, up the road from the VFW. They were trying to see if they could hear a screeching owl just before sunrise. This is after a pre-count gathering the night before at O’Byrne’s longtime family beach home in Dewey Beach.

“It’s tough to drink too much beer the night before when you know you’ve got to be up before dawn the next morning,” said O’Byrne.

There are nine areas within the Rehoboth circle, and O’Byrne and Davis are in the southern portion of the circle. It’s an area she doesn’t know too well and Davis has never been, but the person who usually does the count for that specific area couldn’t make it this year, so as head compiler, O’Byrne took it on.

Christmas Bird Counters usually commit to counting birds all day. O’Byrne said she and Davis will stay out until at least 5 p.m. There’s cloud coverage, but for a late-December morning, the temperatures aren’t too low, there’s not too much wind, and no precipitation is expected. It could be, and has been, much worse, said O’Byrne.

The route given to O’Byrne to follow has about a dozen stops. She said she and Davis will stay at each one until they think they’ve exhausted all the possible birds. For the VFW parking lot, which overlooks a number of coves and the southern portion of the Indian River Bay, the two count for roughly 45 minutes before leaving to go back to the ecological preserve for a walk through the woods.

O’Byrne and Davis stop periodically along the trail to pish – a noise that almost sounds like whistling, but it’s more airy. Sometimes it causes the birds to pop up and see what’s going on, said O’Byrne.

There’s a clearing to the left of the trail, with a pile of branches sitting 6 feet high. Hopping about the branches was a Carolina wren. O’Byrne said she always encourages birders to take pictures. Davis turns and shows off a closeup he took of the wren – beak open, squawking.

O’Byrne and Davis spend about 15 minutes in a lookout near a pond, before heading down to the thicket surrounding it. Looking to draw out birds that are hiding, she places her cellphone along the edge of the thicket and plays the sound of a screeching owl being attacked. This move, which O’Byrne said she knows some people don’t approve of because it gets birds worked up for no reason, draws out a few otherwise motionless birds.

“The birds hear that something is going on and they want to see what it is,” said O’Byrne.

Walking along the orange trail of the preserve, they make their way down to a kayak and paddleboard launch. O’Byrne is walking, scanning the trees back and forth. She kicks a tree root snaking across the path and, without missing a beat, keeps moving.

“I’ve never been accused of being graceful,” she said. “Kicking roots, tripping and almost falling is part of the experience. A person has to keep their head up or they’re going to miss something.”

Totals for Rehoboth Christmas Bird Count

A couple of weeks after the bird counts are over, the Delaware Ornithological Society hosts a dinner so members can share their results. 

The morning after the dinner, Jan. 15, O’Byrne said the Rehoboth Christmas Bird Count groups recorded 134 species, which is on the higher side of average, but the total number of birds was 26,098, which is very low – about half the average number of birds.

O’Byrne said the low number means the group didn’t have any big flocks of snow geese or blackbirds. She said it might not mean anything very important – it could be the flocks were simply outside of the circle, but still around.

“It could be that warm temperatures up north delayed the snow geese coming to Delaware,” said O’Byrne. “So, for this year, I took it as an oddity. When I presented my results at the meeting last night, that seemed to be the consensus of the group.”

  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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