Blue herons’ courtship dance a highlight of annual bird count

My alarm sounded at 6 a.m. on the day after New Year’s. Still a little groggy, I peeked outside from my bedroom window.

I groaned when I saw a heavy fog engulfing my yard and a drizzly rain pattering the driveway. The day’s forecast called for even more rain.

But this was the day for the Intown Atlanta Christmas Bird Count. Rain or shine, cold or warm, foggy or clear, the count would go on.

So, I slipped on my wading boots, heavy raincoat and other foul-weather gear, grabbed my binoculars and headed out to join my eight fellow Atlanta Audubon count team members. We would tally all the birds we could see and hear during the day in our designated count area in southeast Atlanta.

Twelve other birding teams would do the same in other count areas across Atlanta — all within a 15-mile diameter circle centered near the intersection of Ponce de Leon Avenue and Briarcliff Road.

By 8 a.m., the rain had let up, and our team was looking and listening for birds along the trails and boardwalks in Constitution Lakes Park, a 200-acre wetlands sanctuary off Moreland Avenue. By lunch time, we had tallied 48 species there, including a pair of Northern pintail ducks that our sharp-eyed leader, Nathan Farnau, spied from a boardwalk. Pintails are relatively uncommon in this area.

The day’s highlight, though, came as we were leaving the park and spied a pair of great blue herons performing their elaborate courtship dance. “As many times as I’ve been here, I’ve never seen that,” said fellow team member Joy Carter.

The rain started falling again after lunch and continued for the rest of the day. Still, despite the miserable weather, with all teams reporting, we tallied 84 species for the day.

Why do we do it? One reason, of course, is our love of birds and nature. But a main reason is that we gather valuable data to help scientists gauge the health of our planet.

In the sky: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon will be full Thursday. Mercury is low in the east just before sunrise. Venus and Mars are in the west just after dark and set about two hours later. Jupiter rises out of the east around midnight. Saturn rises out of the east about two hours before sunrise.