To spend a full day identifying and counting birds on the 119th annual Christmas Bird Count is to discover firsthand the meaning of John Muir’s quote:
“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Yesterday, I dropped all worries of the world and immersed in birds and their lives here in Bend, Oregon, joining the East Cascades Audubon count. As the day progressed, my skills sharpened –tuning in to the yammer of pygmy nuthatches and the silhouette of a Townsend’s solitaire staking out its territory like a star on top of a Christmas tree.
Once, a mixed flock of robins, juncos, nuthatches and chickadees burst into the sky. Two seconds later, a sharp-shinned hawk seared the crisp air on rounded wings designed for quick turns to pursue its songbird prey through forests.
Hiking along a rimrock trail above the Deschutes River, an unusual arc on the upper right of a juniper trunk caught my eye. I lifted binoculars and the graceful bow was revealed to be a Cooper’s hawk. We gazed at this bird like you would an art masterpiece –drawn into those fiery eyes, hooked bill, breast feathers barred like snow on red cedar, wings the color of ash, a banded tail, and curved talons gripping the branch.
The Audubon Christmas Bird Count takes place across the U.S., Canada and many countries on a selected date this year between December 14, 2018, through January 6, 2019. Every official count covers a 15-mile wide diameter circle. Within that, birders divide into teams to cover mapped areas by foot and car. Everyone who participates is a citizen scientist contributing to critical data showing long-term trends in birds. As climate change, population, and development accelerates, more than half our birds are showing distressing declines.
A strange thing happens, however, when your only focus is naming and counting birds hour after hour –tromping on trails, casing bird feeders in yards, craning your neck to count Vs of geese, and laughing as you try once again to count pygmy nuthatches by the handful. Joy permeates your being and for this day there’s no hand-wringing. Every bird is a jubilation.
Cedar waxwings and robins pluck sky blue berries from a juniper tree luxuriating in in bountiful fruit. A western bluebird on a fence electrifies the chill, gray afternoon with his cobalt blue back and sunrise red chest. California quail hustle through the brush. A northern flicker flares its festive orange-red tail feathers. And yes, a belted kingfisher claims a wire across the Deschutes River as his perch alone.
Always, there are the sounds of birds to tune to—throaty raven croaks, dark-eyed junco trills and chips, staccato fast peeps of pygmy nuthatches, and the repeated note of a Townsend’s solitaire pronouncing mine…mine….mine.
Participating in my first Christmas Bird Count since moving to Bend, I was fortunate to tag along with a seasoned birder and professor who’s covered his area for 18 years and keeps accurate lists on E-Bird, what we used all day to tally the birds. That’s another beautiful thing about the bird count—you don’t have to be an expert. Every good birder needs additional eyes and ears.
On one long day in the lives of birds, there’s also plenty of time to notice and ponder questions like this: Why is it that when you walk a neighborhood with similar yards and bird feeders that the birds are mostly congregated in one yard and not spread out evenly? Running water is a draw and a critical feature, along with native vegetation and trees. But it’s not just that. There’s safety in numbers. When we gasped as a mixed flock rose up like a wind gust, sentinel birds had likely spotted the incoming sharp-shinned hawk and given an alarm call. The risk factor, too, of being nabbed by a predator goes down in a group.
As the day came to a close, I felt my heart sing, filled to the brim with wild art, music and theater. Driving back home, I realized I’d never once switched on the radio to hear the latest from NPR. For this time and on this day, I only wanted to savor the wonder of birds.
Postscript: The tally from the area I counted in– 32 species and 638 birds. Top three most abundant were pygmy nuthatches (96), American robins (92), and Dark-eyed juncos (65).
(Note–featured cover photo shows birders in Bend from the East Cascades Audubon FB Page–not from this particular day, but you get the idea!)