Volume 14, Issue 51 ~ December 21 - December 28, 2006

Earth Journal by Gary Pendleton

Christmas Bird Counts

Another of the season’s traditions

We are such creatures of habit and ritual. We take our morning coffee in the same chairs. We have summer chairs and winter chairs. I have my place at the table for supper, where I am most comfortable. Probably you also have your own.

Rituals and traditions carry more weight at certain times of year. Late December is one of those times.

The tradition of the Christmas Bird Counts began in 1899, the year renowned ornithologist Frank Chapman proposed a census of early-winter bird populations. The idea caught on, resulting in over 100 years of valuable data that show trends in bird populations.

This year, more than 50,000 folks will take part in what is, for most, more a social event than a scientific one. For the most dedicated, the day begins before dawn; they will be scouting for owls: great horned, barred, screech, saw-whet and barn owls.

It’s okay if you want to sleep in, but not too late.

The official count runs between December 20 and January 1. December 17 is the day for the Jug Bay count; December 31 will be Annapolis. Dozens of other counts will take place in Maryland during the period.

Some choose to drive from one spot to another, counting birds seen from the car. They’ll climb out for a look, perhaps a quick foray. Many will be outfitted with high-powered scopes to scan the bays and rivers for waterfowl.

I’ve decided no more counting ducks for me. I won’t stare, one-eyed through my old scope, at a flock of dabblers a half-mile off, struggling to separate the mallards from the gadwalls. The same goes for counting hundreds of geese and gulls. Let the optically well endowed do that work. I’ll take a quick look; then it’s off to the woods.

We’ll spend the morning walking trails with our old binoculars, a note pad, a pocket full of snacks and maybe a field guide. If it is cold, it will be hard to hear the sounds of birds above the rustling leaves because our ears will be covered with hats and hoods. So we will need to stop from time to time to look and, with ears temporarily uncovered, listen.

We will be armed with advice: Check for a lingering catbird on the railroad trail; one was seen there last week. … Don’t overlook the rusty blackbirds … Keep a sharp eye out for a late season yellowthroat in the marsh. We will work hard to find a winter wren.

Because of the cold and an early start we will be hungry before noon, so we’ll break for lunch, someplace warm. Then back to the trails, searching for the species we missed in the morning. We have goals: get all seven species of woodpecker (that never happens). Find both ruby and golden-crowned kinglets, plus that winter wren.

The sense of mission adds to the fun, as does having an old friend along. It is a good time to catch up and tell stories. But be careful: Too much chatting and you’ll miss something.

We will be thinking, too, about the old friends who won’t be with us.

At the end of the day there will be a potluck gathering to compile numbers and swap stories. They call it a tally rally; the lingo is part of the tradition.

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