December 20, 2013
Throughout the holiday season, amateur and professional birdwatchers around the world are staring through binoculars, and cupping their ears like Dumbo the elephant to listen closely for birds. They're taking part in the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird count. It started on December 14 and ends January 5. Birders head to fields, towns, backyards.
Larry Helgerman is the organizer of the Lower Buffalo count in Washington County, Pa. In the basement of the Taylorstown Christian Church he shuffles stacks of Google maps and birdwatching checklists on long tables which are usually reserved for church suppers. Helgerman has been in charge of this count for 11 years, and he is all smiles, even those it’s still dark outside.
It’s just after 7a.m., and bird counters are arriving to pick up their instructions and find out which section of a 15-mile circle they will cover today. They eat cupcakes with red and green sprinkles and drink hot coffee as they wait for their assignments.
"All areas have a chance of finding good things," Helgerman says.
Those "things" include cardinals and Ring-necked Pheasants. There are young and old bird enthusiasts, men and women from three states and eight counties are participating. About 40 people will count birds from their cars or while walking through the nearby fields and roads.
Bruce Edinger has been doing Christmas bird counts since he was a teen-ager.
"It’s a very long-lasting, well over a hundred years history, to the Christmas bird count, as an alternative to the rather gruesome custom in the past of going out on Christmas day and shooting as much wildlife and see who had the biggest pile," Edinger says.
He’s brought his 9-year-old daughter Erica for her first count. She’s bundled up in a pink hat and carries a tabbed Peterson’s Field Guide for Birds. She’s got an idea of what she hopes to spot.
"Ducks, or like, dad says a Tree Sparrow would be a really good bird to see. Or a Snowy Owl would be a really good bird," she says.
Friends Mary Grey and Robin Estep are also counting birds today. Estep claims to be a beginner, but she’s got a pair of tell-tale binoculars that cross behind her back, which all the pros use.
"I just really like to come to the Christmas bird counts because, especially if it’s snowing, it just gets me in the Christmas spirit, you know? Just love it," Estep says.
It is snowing lightly. It’s about 30 degrees. Outside the white country church, the small town is decked out for Christmas. Many of the old Victorian homes look like gingerbread houses already. Grey and Estep's section is right around the church.
Grey says for birding counting you don’t need a lot of equipment—just your ears, eyes and a checklist of all the birds we might see. She gives a quick bird count 101.
"You count the highest number you see. So if you look in a tree and there is say, four starlings, and you look back again and there is six starlings, then you know six. It’s not an exact science," Grey says.
It’s citizen science. The data is used to track bird migrations and population changes.
It is Sunday morning, and the small town roads are quiet. That’s a good thing, since Grey and Estep look up as they walk.
There are mourning doves—mo dos for short—crows, chickadees, and a White-breasted Nuthatch. Male and female Juncos are also counted—the males are darker. Near a backyard bird feeder, something really gets Grey’s attention.
"He was on the fence, clinging to the fence, and he flew up, and he’s going to be on the side of this branch," she says.
It’s a Brown Creeper, working his way from bottom of trunk up looking for insect eggs and larvae.
"Brown Creeper’s a good bird for a town bird," she says.
Grey says seeing a creeper in a residential area might mean they had a good breeding year, and there are a lot of young birds looking for new territory.
Later Helgerman heads to a marshy area near gamelands where he hopes to see a some Swamp and White-crowned Sparrows. There is still water and lots of seeds here for them to eat, so they may stay through winter.
He trudges through tall brown grass and briars. Waterproof boots are a good idea on a bird count. Helgerman makes a ‘pishing” sound to draw out some of the song birds.
He says anyone can be part of the count. It helps to go out with someone experienced, like him. And to keep your ears open..
"You don’t even pay attention to sounds anymore. We’ve lost that. Just starting to tune in to what you’re actually hearing around you. You’ll start hearing squirrels, you’ll hear chipmunks, you’ll hear all these things you were oblivious to," he says.
After about four hours, everyone heads back to the church. Mary Gray carves a ham, and birders are gathering around the tables eating, warming up and comparing notes.
Erica Edinger wants to talk about one bird her dad saw.
"A kestrel. Well, I might have saw it flap. I only saw a silhouette," she says.
With a kestel on marked off on her list, she has some advice for bird counting success—lots of jackets and hot chocolate.
She says she’ll be back to check off more birds next year.