Christmas bird count
Lawrence’s 68th annual Audubon Christmas bird count will take place Dec. 17. Interested birders from experts to beginners are welcome and will be assigned to a counting group. Contact Galen Pittman with the Jayhawk Audubon Society at firstname.lastname@example.org or 785-760-3572 before the count to receive a group placement.
By our first Christmas Bird Count, my partner Lisa and I could identify three species with confidence: robins, blue jays and cardinals.
That was an improvement from the year before when, with great enthusiasm, I mistook a female cardinal on my new bird feeder for a pyrrhuloxia and proudly wrote it in my Audubon Handbook of Birds. I failed to read that the pyrrhuloxia is a desert species, resident from south-central Arizona, east to Texas.
I didn’t yet know about Occam’s razor: the most likely answer is probably the right one. I didn’t yet know about a lot of things, but I wanted to, and that’s all Lawrence’s Jayhawk Audubon Society required of me: a love of birds and an eagerness to learn.
The Christmas Bird Count coordinator had paired us with veteran birders and Baker University professors Roger Boyd and Cal Cink for a day in the Baker Wetlands.
By way of background, the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count originated in 1900. Frank Chapman, the editor of Bird Lore magazine thought that instead of the traditional “Side Hunt,” a rural Christmastime competition where people chose teams to see how many birds they could shoot, he would organize a different hunt altogether. This one would count birds rather than kill them. Since this first count, thousands of people across the United States participate annually. The data captured provides scientists with a crucial snapshot of the health of North American species.
For the chance to team with expert birders like Cal and Roger, Lisa and I committed to a day of doing whatever we could to help. We began at 5 a.m. at the southern edge of the wetlands along the banks of the Wakarusa River. We followed behind, encumbered by layers of long underwear, flannel and wool, stumbling over roots and logs we couldn’t see. Roger and Cal knew of a couple of screech owls they wanted to rouse.
I’ll admit that I’m impressionable and easily startled. From my brother-in-law, I’d heard about snipe hunts, a rural joke where a city mouse is taken into the woods in the wee hours with a gunnysack and a flashlight and then abandoned. When Roger played his recording into the darkness, I knew I wasn’t in on the joke. In a well-lighted, pleasant room, a screech owl whinny is disturbing; in the pitch black of one of the coldest days of the year, it brought me to my knees. It did nothing for the resident screech owls but roused a great-horned.
With my Maglite clamped between my chattering teeth, I made a tic mark on the species tally sheet, the first of many. We learned an enormous amount that first count.
Thanks to expert birders like Roger and Cal who have been willing to mentor us, Lisa and I now cover our own count circle in Lawrence — the area around Prairie Park Nature Center and Mary’s Lake. I no longer expect to see just any bird under the sun, but ones I have come to know, expect and love.
For instance, we don’t feel comfortable leaving — no matter the weather — until we’ve seen at least one hermit thrush silently watching us from a certain kind of brushy tangle. During our predawn owling session, we’re usually able to call up a barred owl or two.
At the end of the day, Jayhawk Audubon Christmas Bird Count participants gather at Prairie Park center for a chili supper and the final tally, a chance to brag and defend “questionable” sightings.
For young and old, novice and expert, it’s a great opportunity to get into the brisk early winter landscape or even join a group birding from a car. To me, it’s become an essential Christmas tradition.
If you’d like to participate in this year’s Jayhawk Audubon count, visit tinyurl.com/43vhcyj.