“No one can read [Frank M. Chapman’s book Camps and Cruises of an Ornithologist] without feeling a closer touch of friendship with the forms of bird life around him, and he will be stony-hearted indeed if he does not become a sympathetic member, at least, of every worthy society that is striving to prevent the ruthless destruction of our native birds.”
-from an article on Frank Chapman, creator of the Christmas Bird Count,
The New York Times, January 9, 1909
“I asked one of the schoolboys to see if he could not send me a skin, prepared in any manner, just so that I could identify the bird [a cactus wren]…The boy shot me four specimens, for which I am sorry. I send them to you, however, merely that you may see that I have identified the bird all right.”
-former president Theodore Roosevelt writing to Chapman in 1911
Christmastime is steeped in vague but well-intentioned tradition. Generally speaking, it involves people doing oddly charitable and/or consumptive things in oddly conspicuous ways on or near December 25, the world over, nominally in celebration of Jesus’ birthday. By now, and for most of those people, the holiday’s meaning is shrouded in so much snow-globe sparkle and ersatz alpenglow as to be utterly divorced from its namesake godhead and his storied life.
As a result, Christmas has become all but defined by a bevy of “traditional” practices. Practices that would likely have baffled Mr. Christ, the swaddled birthday boy. These days, it’s more about observing dubious rituals at a specific time each year, over and over until they’re magically imbued with significance, than it is about Jesus. It’s about gift exchanges, convivial gatherings, garlands of garish lights, pumpkin-spice lattes and the like. It’s about arboreal sacrifice followed by tawdry corpse-dressing followed by reverent exaltation, in that order. It’s about nimble credit cards and predatory online sales and expedited shipping. It’s about getting into the spirit of things, allowing the yuletide to well up around one’s knees, then standing idly by as it sucks one out to sea like an undertow.
And depending on which circles one moves in, Christmastime is also about birds—live birds, in situ. Not just basted turkeys. Nor that mixed flock of “four calling birds, three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree”. I’m talking about the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science effort aimed at monitoring bird population trends on a massive scale. Born from an entirely different aim—that of shotguns trained on as many birds as one had shells for—the now-bloodless count turns an age-old maxim on its head: birds in the bush are worth infinitely more alive than dead by one’s hand, any ratios notwithstanding.
Now in its 115th year, the count draws more than 70,000 volunteer birders from across the Americas. They spend a day (or several days, contingent on their ardor) counting wild birds within a prescribed circle 15 miles across, sunrise to sunset. They move in flocks, much like their quarry, toting binoculars and spotting scopes and clicky metal tallywhackers for counting large, clustered groups of birds. They bicker and henpeck amongst themselves, amongst rival birders, because it is their contentious nature to question the observations of others, to remain unsatisfied until the putative bird is glimpsed with their own eyes.
As far as Christmas traditions go, counting birds makes about as much sense as the rest. That is, it does not, strictly speaking, make sense. It is an arbitrary artefact. Partly out of tradition (the shotgunning of yore was a holiday affair) and partly out of convenience (Christmastime affords people time off from work to do other things, such as watch birds), the count occurs from December 14 to January 5. This practice of citizen science is an inexact one, as amateurs and hobbyists are allowed—nay, encouraged—to participate in the count. Mistakes are unavoidable. But with enough counters involved, and with enough counts done successively in discrete areas, a fuzzy-edged census emerges, one that can be compared with those of years past and inform future conservation efforts.
I am one of these birders. I am not ashamed. (Although this was not always the case.) Recently I joined two Christmas Bird Counts that took place near my home on the central coast: Lincoln City’s and Yaquina Bay’s, in Newport. Each required me to wake up before dawn on a Saturday and count birds in whatever weather until the sun went down. Each required equal measure of patience and fortitude in the face of monotony, of numbing pedantry. Yet each gave amply in their rewards: interesting birds seen, friends made, time spent outdoors enjoying the Pacific Northwest coast.
Saturday, December 13, Lincoln City. I am picked up from my house at 6:15 by Dick, our group leader. Dick is a genial man in his late sixties, roundly compact, with a pronounced East Coast accent. His large, protuberant eyes are uncommonly expressive behind his bifocals, and I’m to find he regards bird and birder alike with similar earnestness. We meet the other participants at a Pig ’N Pancake in Lincoln City, split into groups, and head off on our respective routes. Paul and Carol, a sexagenarian couple renowned among Lincoln City birders for their easygoing prowess, are the only other members of our group.
Dick, as our leader, has a day-long itinerary set for us. We are few in number and the birds are plentiful, disparate and diffuse. Much of our circumscribed area lies over Siletz Bay, so Dick has us skirt its perimeter to ensure everything within and around it are accounted for. Time (read: daylight) is of the essence. We mustn’t tarry long.
We drive from spot to spot, Dick and I in his Ford Explorer, Paul and Carol in their minivan. “Okay, maybe ten more minutes here and we’ll move on,” Dick says, after we search in vain for a wrentit in the Lincoln City borough of Taft. “It’s gotta be in there,” Paul insists, whistling into the bushes. “I see them here all the time.” Even Paul’s spot-on rendition of wrentit song fails to reveal one from the thicket of salmonberry and myrtle. On the bay, the gulls—mew, glaucous-winged, Western, glaucous-winged/Western hybrid, ring-billed—are tallied. The scoters, cormorants, buffleheads and mergansers are tallied. Paul is a consummate and confident birder; Dick is no slouch himself but seems perfectly fine deferring to Paul’s certitude as he calls out species and numbers from his scope. Both are leagues beyond me in skill and familiarity with these species—species I grew up with, for the most part. And Carol? Carol is cryptic. If she’s identifying birds, I’m not aware of it. She trails behind the three of us, seemingly bored with the turnout. We move on.
At a nature walk in Culver City (another borough), Dick warns us before heading in, “No more than twenty minutes in here. We could definitely get sucked in—I know from experience—so we gotta keep moving.” Paul tries out the wrentit whistle again, to no avail. He switches up and does an utterly convincing Western screech owl call, a softly plosive series of hoots, starting slow and gathering speed at the finish. This drives the songbirds wild. Juncos and chestnut-backed chickadees materialize angrily over our heads, searching for an owl to mob. Carol laughs in delight. “Boy, that sure got them riled up,” Dick marvels, before glancing at his watch. “Okay guys, let’s keep going, shall we?”
By early afternoon, we’ve completed our perimeter of the bay. The light is failing and the birds are hunkering down. Before leaving Salishan Spit, on the bay’s west shore, Carol dispenses homemade cookies to rally the team. Our last stop is also the furthest south, at Gleneden Beach State Park. Here, in the flat slaty glare of a wintry Pacific, we spot loons, surfbirds, black turnstones, black oystercatchers, brown pelicans and grebes. In the parking lot, near a snarl of thimbleberry, Paul lets loose the trilling wrentit song one last time. Suddenly, eerily, a pitch-perfect response floats from the canes. Paul repeats; the bird sings back. And then it flies into view. Two feet away, safely ensconced in thimbleberry, a wrentit hops among the branches, fixing its catlike eye on us. I stare back at this tiny, defiant, unremarkable brown bird, and in a beat it’s gone. “Holy shit,” I say, “that was incredible!” Paul smiles and looks modestly down at his feet. Carol finally pipes up. “He can almost get them to land on your head. I’ve come eye to eye with them six inches away!”
Saturday, January 3, Newport. It is resolutely overcast but calm: not ideal for birding, but better than sheets of driven rain. I’m assigned to the Yaquina Bay group, led by my boss Dawn’s husband, Ram, and rounded out by my coworker Rebecca and her teenaged son, Brendan. Another four-birder crew. Rebecca and Brendan are newcomers to the count—their first ever. Our purview includes a large swath of Yaquina Bay’s south shore, from Idaho Point to the South Beach jetty. It promises to be a ducky sort of day.
Ram—bespectacled, hiply bald and goateed, an amazing painter and photographer of wildlife—sets out at the outset his intentions for the day: to see a long-tailed duck, and to see a palm warbler. Both of which were spotted in this vicinity within the past week by other, perhaps more credulous birders. “We have to see the palm warbler, at the very least,” he says, with mock seriousness. Rebecca looks at him with eyebrows raised. But Ram is all smiles and wisecracks; he’s clearly here to have fun, and the sighting of rare birds is an incidental treat.
Our day is preoccupied mainly by waterfowl: pintail, widgeon, mallard, greater scaup, bufflehead, hooded and red-breasted mergansers, Barrow’s and common goldeneye, brandt geese. Also grebes, cormorants, pelicans, herons, loons, and of course gulls. Ram makes a conscious effort to point out species unfamiliar to Rebecca and Brendan; he sights birds in his scope and beckons them to have a look-see. “Now, here’s how you tell a horned grebe from a red-necked grebe…” Or: “You’ll notice how the pelagic cormorant’s head and neck are about the same thickness…” I’m all ears, too—Ram’s painstakingly painted hundreds of birds, and one doesn’t come away from such work without an ultra-nuanced schema of their features committed to memory.
Rebecca, as it turns out, has a definite mischievous streak. She’s clearly tickled by Ram’s insistence on seeing the palm warbler, and it becomes her goal to “see” the warbler first—maybe on her way to the bathroom, or while Ram is in the bathroom, or out the backseat window while Ram is driving…basically anyplace that he’s not looking—and have it conveniently disappear before he can spot it. Thus the warbler becomes her comedic fodder. “Ram, did you see the palm warbler back there? We passed it on our way to the science center.”
“No! Really? Back there?”
Ram is fooled for perhaps a nanosecond. As soon as his face registers the joke, Rebecca and Brendan burst out laughing. I can’t help but join in.
At a marsh near the South Beach jetty, Ram plays a recording of a Virginia rail’s call from his iPhone to prompt a rejoinder. “It looks like a good spot for rails, right? Let’s just see what happens…” The call goes unanswered, though we wait a couple more seconds in pregnant silence. Aburptly (and incongruously), the song of a palm warbler bursts out from behind us. Ram’s head whips around—it’s Rebecca on her iPhone, calling up a different song with the same app. Everyone cracks up. “You almost got me that time! Almost!”
We notice an unusual number of runners coursing past while scouting the South Beach jetty for Ram’s long-tailed duck. Someone points out that they’re all wearing racing bibs. (We birders can be a bit monomaniacal at times. Especially while counting.) As it so happens, we find ourselves wading through the midst of Rogue Brewery’s “Resolution Run and Polar Bear Plunge”, and it’s unclear which group is more confounded by the other.
“What are you guys looking at?” huffs a ruddy-faced young woman in a bib, jogging in place beside me. All of us are turned toward the bay’s mouth, counting grebes.
“Um, birds. We’re doing a Christmas bird—”
“Oh! Just birds!” She pauses and smiles apologetically. “I mean, birds are really interesting! I just thought…well, anyway! Have fun!” She turns and runs off.
We strike out on the long-tailed duck. It’s nearly four and getting dusky, the sky precisely the same shade of gray as earlier, at eight. Brendan and Rebecca are calling off the chase. “He’s getting pretty restless,” Rebecca says tactfully of Brendan. “We’re gonna go into the office and see if Dawn needs any help setting up food for the get-together.” For most counts, the birders congregate at day’s end to tally results and swap tales of their exploits. “Good luck with that warbler,” she tells Ram, smirking, and Ram smirks right back.
All jokes aside, Ram is determined to find the palm warbler. I agree to join him in a final sweep of the bayside. We pad along the waterfront trail, eyes and ears open, alert. Seeing a palm warbler would be a first for me, a so-called “lifer” in birder parlance. I have no idea what it looks like, what its habits are—it being a predominately East Coast bird—but thankfully Ram fills me in as we stalk the sparse Sitka spruces and coyotebush near the trail. “It was spotted right here two days ago. Keep your eyes peeled near the ground. It likes to hang out there, more than you’d expect for a warbler.” He pulls up its song on his iPhone and plays it softly, on repeat. No more than a few minutes go by. And then, utterly contrary to all my expectations, the palm warbler evinces itself. It is a palm-sized brownish bird, yellow underneath, with a distinct rufous crown. It hops daintily on the ground, seemingly unable to remain in place for longer than an instant. I get only the scantiest glimpse before it’s gone. “Holy shit,” I say, “that was incredible.”