Day 19: A Bird Watcher Looks Back on Christmases Past

On Dec. 19, 2019, I led my last Clemson, S.C., Christmas Bird Count. For almost 30 years, I’d been the compiler, the person responsible for organizing dozens of volunteer birders to count every species encountered across a 15-mile-diameter circle. The event, which merges my passion for birding with my profession as an ornithologist, is a service to bird conservation and one of the longest-running crowdsourced science efforts 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 tally the wanton slaughter in yuletide celebration. Fortunately, kinder sensibilities prevailed in 1900, when the ornithologist Frank Chapman promoted watching and counting over killing. The Christmas Bird Count was born from his efforts.

My standard counting procedure entails driving to the widest variety of habitats. All birds heard or seen from vehicles or by foot are recorded. Some folks stick close to home and count at their backyard feeders. At nightfall, we gather to compile our notes over a hot meal and recount the day’s findings by species. Cold beers and maybe a margarita or two come into play.

In the good old days of the late 1980s, counts of some species hit impressive highs. Combined lists might swell to over one hundred species. But with the passing decades, I’ve noticed that absences are outweighing abundances: Smaller murmurating flocks, field edges absent bobwhite or loggerhead shrikes and duckless open water. I’ve called conservation the worrisome work of digging salvation from a sandy pit; things seem to always fall back in around you. Still, we count. There’s great belief in Emily Dickinson’s poetic forecast of hope being the thing with feathers.

After each and every one of these dawn-to-dusk deals, I’m exhausted. But it’s been worth every bleary-eyed awakening and caffeine-slurping, midafternoon, birdless slump. Hearing the otherworldly twittering of woodcock dancing in moonlit sky or watching a northern harrier play the wind inspires past dreary doubt. Knowing that orange-crowned warblers could have been on Arctic tundra just weeks before they skulk in my presence ties my watching to distant lands.

It felt odd retiring as the count leader, but good to have persisted for so long. Finally back home, with a celebratory cold beer in hand and sleep heavy eyes, I didn’t even notice the news stories about some strange virus that was taking hold in China. Little did I know that the 2020 Christmas Bird Count would be canceled because that virus would lead to millions of lives lost. By 2021, the count was on 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 to me. This month, I’ll be counting again on hope, taking neither birds nor people for granted.

To learn more about the Christmas Bird Count and sign up in your area, go to the Audubon website.