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. 

An Interview with Tess Gerritsen has a great interview today with my friend and neighbor Tess Gerritsen. It feels surreal to say, but I've known Tess since the days when she was writing Harlequins for peanuts. I remember hearing the news about her life-transforming book contract for Harvest and thinking that good fortune had finally touched a deserving person. No author I know approaches her writing with more professionalism than Tess, and she has earned her success.

One of the nice points Kate Flora touches on in her interview is Tess's generosity to other writers. She remembers her own early days and understands how difficult it is to get published and then to make your book stand out from the others hitting the shelves at Books-a-Million. When I gave her the galleys for The Poacher's Son, she not only wrote a (heartfelt) blurb, she and her husband Jake volunteered to host my book launch at her house overlooking Penobscot Bay. It was one of the greatest days of my life, and I have Tess to thank.