Saturday, December 19, 2009

December 19: Christmas Bird Count

The annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of those holiday season traditions that I always look forward to. The basic premise is this: a fixed Count Circle with a 15-mile radius has been divided into territories, or sections; we spend the entire designated day counting every bird we see in our section. Not just how many species we see, but every individual bird we see. All day. It's a long one, especially when temperatures are low.

The Christmas Bird Count, which has been going on for over 100 years, originated as an alternative to the Christmas "Side Hunts" in which men would compete to see who could shoot the most birds. Done in the same place at the same time over a number of years, the CBC reveals trends in bird populations. You can read more about it on the Audubon website. My husband and I have personally been involved with the local Thomaston-Rockland Count for over 15 years, and have been leading "our" section for about half that time. This morning we were joined by several birder friends who were kind enough to brave the cold to help us count. We began the day with a fly-by pair of ravens. Louisa Gerstenberger's sharp eyes found an eagle perched in a tree; later we enjoyed watching it fly over the breakwater. This was the only ocean in our section, so we spent the longest time here, trying to rack up ducks, geese, grebes, and loons. The breakwater itself was covered with a thin coating of salty ice, and scattered with gull-pecked sea urchin bodies. Usually we see purple sandpipers on the seaward side of this jetty, but not today, despite walking its length, with care, two different times.

After lunch, my husband and I were on our own in tackling the most challenging part of our section, a strange no-man's-land in Rockland's hinterlands, a marshy valley bounded by several old limestone quarries that, despite being across the street from the city dump, has also become a local dumping grounds. This year we came upon the remains of a moose head. Some years it's discarded appliances or a bag of deer guts, and always lots of beer bottles. This year, a moose head. We were also fortunate enough to come upon a flock of cedar waxwings, one of my favorite birds, as well as a group of 6 cardinals, several red-tailed hawks flying over the fields, and some attractive sparrows.

By dark, we had racked up 34 species, 753 individuals. In a "good" year we get at least 40 species, but we aren't complaining. Our list includes 7 wild turkeys, 5 downy woodpeckers, 127 Canada geese, 57 crows, 101 herring gulls, 4 horned grebes, and 23 buffleheads. And we spent the whole of a sunny winter day outside, looking for birds with good friends in this beautiful area we call home. That's the kind of holiday tradition I like to keep.

We saw 36 of these guys, including this one. Photo by Brian Willson.

Raven: two; Loon: four--
ritual of the Bird Count.
But who can count joy?

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