By Joann M. Ringelstetter
This year, from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5, the 113th Christmas Bird Count is taking place throughout the United States, Canada, and several other countires. Ruth and I will be out at sunrise on December 22 to spend the day counting every bird we see or hear in our assigned count area. This will be the 18th Christmas Bird Count for us.
The Christmas Bird Count was born out of a concern by ornithologist Frank Chapman regarding the number of birds that were being killed in the annual Christmas “Side Hunt.” This tradition called for sides to be chosen, followed by teams heading to the fields to shoot as many birds and animals as they could. The side returning with the most dead animals and birds was declared the winner of the event.
Realizing that the declining bird populations would not survive this tradition, Frank Chapman suggested that birds be counted on Christmas Day rather than hunted. This resulted in the first Christmas Bird Count (CBC), which occurred on Christmas Day in the year 1900. That day, 27 dedicated birders participated in 25 inaugural Christmas Bird Counts, tallying around 90 species in total. Last year, tens of thousands of birders gathered data in over 2200 CBCs. This data, which has now been collected for over a century, is valuable to conservation biologists and researchers in determining the long-term status of bird populations.
In 1994, Ruth and I participated in our first Christmas Bird Count, which occurred the day after Christmas. Because it was our first experience with a bird survey, we were lucky to have the guidance of a very experienced birder to “show us the ropes.”
It was extremely foggy that day and the fog didn’t lift until around noon, so mostly we birded by ear. At one point, however, as we crossed a bridge over a small stream, the other first-time CBC participant who was with us thought she saw something in the stream, which was mostly frozen over. Ruth and I looked long and hard with our binoculars and said it wasn’t moving, but our friend insisted that we set up the spotting scope to make sure we didn’t miss something.
After setting up the scope on the tripod and taking a closer look, we confirmed that it was actually a goose decoy frozen in the stream. Well, you can imagine the laughter and kidding (for years to come) over that “species.” Later in the day, when we were tallying the day’s counts, we jokingly tried to enter one “frozen goose” on the official count form, which caused another fit of laughter from the group. One of the highlights of that day was counting 49 mourning doves gathered in a cornfield toward the end of the day.
As we look and listen for birds to count, we do a lot of it from the car (because of the weather), but we also get out and walk as much as we can. We use our binoculars and a spotting scope, check bird feeders by homes, watch the sky for anything flying over, hope to see something rare or unusual, check our many bird reference guides to validate our observations, meet a lot of nice people (and some suspicious ones), and have quite an enjoyable day.
In 1996, we recorded our first CBC bald eagles (five of them) and our first pileated woodpecker.
We also counted 111 wild turkeys during that count. Over the years, turkeys have become a source of fun for us. Sometimes they are easily spotted and the numbers are large. Other times, they are nowhere to be found. At some point, someone in the car will say, “Hey, there’s a turkey!” And when the rest of us look but don’t see it, that someone will point to another person in the group, identifying them as the turkey.
In 1998, on a very cold day with snow on the ground, we recorded four Eastern Bluebirds. They were sitting on a bittersweet vine and the bright orange berries complemented the orange on the breast of the bluebirds. I wish I could have gotten a photograph, but I would have scared them away, so we just took a mental snapshot. We also saw about 120 robins in one tree, which was an unusual sight indeed. And, in 2000, during a heavy snowfall, we managed to see a short-eared owl hunkered down in a ravine. This was a very special treat!
As I mentioned before, we are always hoping to see something rare during our Christmas Bird Counts, such as this:
I’m just kidding, of course, because it would be rare indeed if we saw a Greater Roadrunner here in Wisconsin. But someone conducting a CBC in the Southwest will surely see one. Speaking of rare birds and our CBC kidding, we conducted a CBC one year without one of our usual companions. At the end of the day, we met up with this friend, who was eager to learn what we had observed that day.
When she looked at the copy of the data form that we had supposedly submitted to the CBC compiler, which would then be turned into the Audubon Society, she was stunned, not to mention upset with us. In the “Rare Bird” section, we had filled in “One Blue-Footed Booby,” which is a bird that has bright blue webbed feet and lives off the western coasts of Central and South America. She was really worried that we would be banned from participating in future CBCs, until we started to giggle uncontrollably.
Participating in the Christmas Bird Count every year on a day very close to Christmas allows us to get out and enjoy the early Wisconsin winter. And when we see a farm scene decorated for Christmas, it adds to our enjoyment.
Merry Christmas and Happy Shunpiking!