Christmas Bird Count 2011

Depending on how you look at it, birding is either a bizarre, old-fogeyish pastime or a transcendent activitity capable of bonding the human soul with the natural world. When I take my binoculars and go outside to watch birds, it's not unusual for me to feel both ways about what I'm doing, with my emotions changing from moment to moment. I'll be feeling sort of silly and self-conscious standing by a roadside while cars of gawking people stream by and I'm looking at, of all things, a chickadee. And then I'll remember that chickadees are actually phenomenal creatures whose brains expand in the fall so they can recall where all the best feeding locations are (scientists have no clue how this happens but are desperate to learn what it means) and that these tiny, hollow-boned, nine-gram fluffballs are actually modern dinosaurs

The day that always embodies my avian ambivalence happened to be today, when I took part as ever in the annual Chrismas Bird Count. The origins of the count make for an interesting story, especially for someone like me who is both a birdwatcher and a birdhunter. (Many of the best birders I know are both.)

This morning began on the frozen Rockland breakwater in a biting snow squall, stretched over eight hours of counting every crow, gull, and yes, chickadee my comrades and I could find, and ended at nightfall at the edge of a trackless bog where in the far distance a great horned owl was beginning to hoot. It was cold, exhausting, socially awkward at times (lots of people shake their heads when you explain what you're up to although more confess a secret affection for birds)—but also an occasion for good-fellowship, a raw and necessary encounter with nature that too few of us modern Americans allow ourselves to experience, and an unfolding series of revelatory moments that affected me aesthetically and spiritually.

Here was my group's tally for the day, if you're interested:

Weather: Cold, snow showers throughout day, heaviest in morning

Total species for section I: 50

Total species for Count circle: 69

* Species seen ONLY in our section
Red-throated loon   4 
Common loon        7
Red-necked grebe    6
Horned grebe    3
Great cormorant    2
Canada goose    164 (the most numerous species in our section)
Black duck    6
Mallard    131
Lesser scaup    1 *
Common eider    9
Long-tailed duck    22
Surf scoter    2
Common goldeneye    4
Bufflehead    4
Red-breasted merganser    4
Hooded merganser    4
Bald eagle    1 
Red-tailed hawk    1
Merlin    1
American coot    600 (at least!)
Purple sandpiper    4 *
Bonaparte's gull    15
Ring-billed gull    6
Herring gull    127
Great black-backed gull    2
Black-legged kittiwake    14 
Razorbill    2 * 
Black guillemot    7
Mourning dove   24
Great horned owl    1 *
Hairy woodpecker    3
Downy woodpecker    4
Red-bellied woodpecker    1
Northern flicker    1
Blue jay    1
American crow    32
Black-capped chickadee    27
Tufted titmouse    3
White-breasted nuthatch    2
American robin    22
Northern mockingbird    1
Starling    90
Yellow-rumped warbler    1 *
on the whole count!)
Northern cardinal    7
American tree sparrow    16
Song sparrow    2
White-throated sparrow    2
House finch    11
American goldfinch    26
House sparrow    3

* Species seen ONLY in our section

All in all, it was both a frivolous and deeply meaningful day.