Day 19: A bird watcher looks back at Christmas past

In December 19, 2019, I conducted my last Christmas Bird Count from Clemson, SC. For nearly 30 years, he had been the compiler, the person responsible for organizing dozens of volunteer birders to count every species found in a circle 15 miles in diameter. The event, which merges my passion for birdwatching with my profession as an ornithologist, is a service to bird conservation and one of the longest-running collective scientific endeavors in the world.

Once upon a time, Christmas morning hunts were popular holiday activities, as hunters set out to kill every feathered thing they could find to count the rampant killing in the Christmas celebration. Fortunately, a kinder sensibility prevailed in 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman promoted observation and kill counts. The Christmas Bird Count was born out of his efforts.

My standard counting procedure involves driving to the widest variety of habitats. All birds heard or seen from vehicles or on foot are recorded. Some people stay close to home and count on backyard feeders. In the evening, we gather to compile our notes over a hot meal and explain the day’s finds by species. Cold beers and maybe a margarita or two come into play.

In the good old days of the late 1980s, the count of some species reached impressive highs. Combined lists can grow to over a hundred species. But as the decades pass, I’ve noticed that the absences outweigh the abundances: smaller murmuring flocks, field edges without bobwhite or baboon, and open water without duck. I have called conservation the troubling work of digging salvation out of a sandpit; things always seem to fall back around you. Still, we count. There is great belief in Emily Dickinson’s poetic foresight that hope is the thing with feathers.

After each and every one of these deals from dawn to dusk, I’m exhausted. But it’s been worth every bleary-eyed, caffeine-drinking, mid-afternoon, birdless-fall wake-up. Hearing the otherworldly cry of the woodpecker dancing in the moonlit sky or watching a northern harrier playing in the wind inspires a sad doubt. Knowing that orange-crowned warblers could have been in the Arctic tundra just weeks before they lurked in my presence ties my observation to distant lands.

It was strange to retire as Earl leader, but good to have persisted for so long. Finally back home, cold celebratory beer in hand and heavy eyed, I didn’t even notice the news about some strange virus taking hold in China. Little did I know that the 2020 Christmas Bird Count would be canceled because this virus would take millions of lives. In 2021, the count was done again, but there were fewer people and fewer birds along with them. I was no longer the compiler, but getting out was a healing joy for me. This month I will count on hope again, taking neither birds nor people for granted.

For more information on the Christmas Bird Count and to register in your area, go to Audubon website.

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