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Lange: The Christmas Bird Count

Between December 14 and January 5, volunteers from the National Audubon Society will conduct their annual one-day Christmas bird counts. The practice goes back 113 years. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist, started the count in 1900 to record the effects of industry, large-scale-farming, and logging on bird populations.

The bird count replaces an older tradition – the annual Christmas “side hunt,” in which shotgunners killed as many birds as possible in a day, regardless of size, rarity, or species. I once visited Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, where a century ago raptors were slaughtered by the thousands during their migration. Then a wealthy New Yorker bought the property and declared it a sanctuary.

Today Hawk Mountain attracts flocks of birders in season, who count and name the hawks and vultures as they soar past, and where, according to the manager, “you’ll find the greatest concentration in the world of two thousand-dollar binoculars.” There are lots of binoculars on the Christmas count, too - standard equipment for birders.

It’s not just canaries in coal mines that provide information on the quality of our environment; it’s also the little feathered critters you glimpse flitting through the woods and fields, and keeping your bird feeder busy. Their numbers can vary widely; it’s important to try to understand why. The Christmas count is a great place to start.

The count is conducted within designated circles 15 miles in diameter. The group assigned to each circle – there are 21 in New Hampshire, 19 in Vermont – splits into teams and spreads out across its section, counting the birds they see. I was with a gang surveying a circle centered in Pittsburg, New Hampshire; and the Town of Errol. After a day of counting in the Pittsburg circle, we met at a restaurant in Colebrook. Some had road-counted; others had slogged through knee-deep snow.

We met again next morning at 7:00 in Errol, where the birders breakfasted in the falling snow on day-old pizza. I spent the morning with a botany professor and a nature-tour operator. They were sharp! We drove along at 25 miles an hour. The professor sat in the back seat with her window open and somehow managed to spot and hear birds on her side of the car. Often they were at bird feeders, prime spots for counting. Homeowners can get a little tense when they see strangers peering at their houses with binoculars, but they’re usually mollified when it’s explained.

In the afternoon I accompanied a younger team with a digital player that broadcast bird calls to the surrounding woods. Doesn’t matter which calls they use. First chickadees appear to see what’s going on. Then other species that gravitate toward the sound of anything that might mean food. The one bird they lost was me. There was a thermos of coffee and condensed milk back in my truck that called even louder.

This is Willem Lange in Errol, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a retired remodeling contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in East Montpelier, Vermont.
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