Day 19: A bird watcher looks back on Christmas past

On Dec. February 19, 2019, I conducted my last Clemson, SC, Christmas Bird Count. For nearly 30 years, I was the compiler, the person responsible for organizing dozens of volunteer birders to count every species encountered in a circle 15 miles in diameter. The event, which combines my passion for birdwatching with my profession as an ornithologist, is a service to bird conservation and one of the longest-running crowd-sourced science efforts in the world.

Once upon a time, Christmas morning hunts were a popular holiday activity, when hunters would set out to kill whatever feathered thing they could find to count the wanton carnage of the Christmas season. Fortunately, a friendlier sensibility prevailed in 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman promoted watching and counting over killing. The Christmas Bird Count was born from his efforts.

My standard counting method is to visit a wide variety of habitats. All birds heard or seen from vehicles or on foot are recorded. Some people stay close to home and count at their backyard feeders. As night falls, we gather to compile our notes over a hot meal and report the day’s findings by species. Cold beer and maybe a margarita or two come into play.

In the good old days of the late 1980s, counts of some species reached impressive heights. Combined lists could swell to over a hundred ways. But over the decades I’ve found that the absence outweighs the abundance: Smaller murmuring flocks, field edges with no shrike or hawksbill shrike, and duckless open water. I have called conservation the toil of digging rescue out of a sandy pit; Things always seem to come around you. Still, we count. There is great belief in Emily Dickinson’s poetic prediction that hope is the thing with feathers.

After every single one of these offers from morning to night I am exhausted. But it was worth every dull awakening and caffeine-sipping, birdless lunch break. Hearing the otherworldly chirping of woodcocks dancing in the moonlit sky, or watching a northern harrier play with the wind, casts desolate doubts. Knowing that Orange-crowned Warblers might have been on the arctic tundra just weeks before they lurked in my presence ties my observation to distant lands.

It felt strange to retire as leader of the counts, but it was good to have held out for so long. Finally back home, with a celebratory cold beer in hand and eyes heavy asleep, I didn’t even notice the news of a strange virus spreading in China. Little did I know that the 2020 Christmas bird census would be canceled because this virus would result in the loss of millions of lives. By 2021, counting resumed, but there were fewer people and fewer birds with them. I wasn’t the compiler anymore, but getting out was a healing joy for me. This month I’m back to hope and not taking birds or humans for granted.

To learn more about the Christmas Bird Count and to register in your area, go to Audubon website.

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