It’s 6:50AM on a Saturday morning (Dec 15) and I’m heading to my first Christmas Bird Count. It’s cold, dark, and raining. Yippee.
What’s a Christmas Bird Count ? It’s a program administered by the National Audubon Society that uses volunteer birdwatchers to take a census of birds in the Northern & Western Hemisphere winter. Yep, that’s right. Folks go out into the cold winter woods to count numbers & species of birds. Then they report this to the Audubon Society.
Dating back to Dec 1900, this is described as the longest running citizen science survey in the world. Now in year 118. The Audubon Society also partners with several other organizations in the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
According to a Facebook post by Robert Mulvihill of the National Aviary, there are 15 designated counting circles in SW PA. Each is headed by a Compiler who, as the name implies, compiles the data for that particular circle & sends it up the ladder. I’m joining the Washington Circle where the Compiler is Thomas Contreras, a Professor in the Biology Department at W & J. That’s where we’ll meet. Several other volunteers show up there. Others will be heading out directly from home to their pre-designated area in the circle. Others will be counting at bird feeders. No doubt they’ll be warmer & drier than we’ll end up.
After short discussions I’m partnered with a life -long birder. And ‘partnered’, in the birding sense only since he’s the senior managing partner in a prestigious law firm and I’m an unpaid summer intern just finishing up pre-law. (See ‘gofer’ or ‘nephew’, whichever applies.) Although, in this case, my partner was more than companionable. And if you’re going to spend 3 hours walking in the cold rain with someone, companionable is the least that you hope for.
We got our assigned area and headed out. We ended up south of Washington in the area around Prosperity & Bells Lakes, crisscrossing Ten Mile Creek or some tributary several times.
A few things I learned from my birding partner :
There’s a big difference between a ‘walk in the woods’ and a birders ‘walk in the woods’. The latter is much, much, much, slower. In 3 hours in the field my partner estimated that we’d only walked about 1.5 miles. After all, if you’re looking for ” little brown jobs ” (an informal term referring to the large families of small plain colored birds) hiding in the brush you have to look long & hard.
There’s also some unique vocabulary & techniques :
“Pishing” is simply the act of saying “pish,pish,pish” several times in the hope that a curious bird will poke it’s head out of the brush. You do it in the same tone you might use in saying “Psshh” to someone. Not too loud. It didn’t help flush any birds that day but, later, it would get my dogs attention every time.
“Squeaking” is another form of pishing. To squeak, nosily kiss the back of your hand. This makes a noise, you hope, like a bird scolding a predator. It can entice other birds to join in.
You can also get something called a “squeaker”. A little noise maker to do something similar. Although when I searched “birders squeaking noise” I got a video of a parrot that made a squeaking sound when squeezed. Followed by an endless series of videos of parrots making funny sounds. Who knew?
The binoculars recommended were typically described in range of 843 or 845 to 1050. The 8 or 10 refers to magnification. And there’s a tradeoff. The lower magnification gives a wider field of vision while the higher magnification offers a narrower field. For hand held binoculars, and for following a bird in flight, a wider field is very important. And water proof binoculars with good lens optics do not come cheap. A truly good pair can cost $1500-$2000.
Well, it rained the entire time we were out. And the temperature hovered around 46F. Chilling. About 2 hours into the field trip I decided I better put my gloves on or I wouldn’t be able to grip the keys for my cars ignition.
Did the birds cooperate? Not so much. In that weather any bird with an instinct for self -preservation was hunkered down in the thickest brush it could find, trying to stay warm and dry.
But, will I do it again? Absolutely. It is a way to learn something new while doing something worthwhile. And if you’re lucky, that’s as good as retirement gets.