BIRD WATCH: Memories of bird counts past go by

THANKS TO “A Christmas Carol,” by Charles Dickens, the term “Christmas Past” was born.

In its own way, the term illustrated that memories are an important part of the holiday season.

For thousands of birdwatchers some of those memories aren’t the familiar traditional ones.

Birders look back on those days when shopping, decorating, baking and holiday festivities were set aside and we spent an entire day counting birds.

The annual Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by local Audubon chapters, takes place during the latter part of December and into early January.

Chapters choose the day their group will count birds in their designated area.

The count is always the same and it is always different.

Memories are created when something unexpected happens.

When tallying the birds, one person is assigned the task of writing down the names of each species seen. They also record the number counted.

Experienced birders are assigned specific species to count so that everyone isn’t trying to count all of the birds at the same time.

This has been known to addle a tally person’s brains to an almost irreparable condition.

The birder keeping track of the counting is often less experienced. Confusing them is to be avoided.

On one past count, my sister was the newcomer.

We were counting birds on a local military base that grants permission to count “their” birds.

The base overlooks a passage of deep salt water. It attracts large numbers of diving birds such as the grebes and loons.

As the “experienced” birder in our group confidently called out “red-necked loon,” the tallying came to a halt.

Jeanne looked at me, a question in her eyes. She was puzzled but hesitated to correct the call.

She hesitated, but not for long.

“Don’t you mean red-throated loon?”

I did. Hybridizing two different species can happen when your mouth outruns your brain.

Some years it rains buckets or blows a hurricane on count day.

Other winters have found us trying to write down the names of the birds with pens that wouldn’t write because the ink was so cold it couldn’t flow.

Worst of all was the time the binoculars froze up. They became so hard to focus that we made a quick trip home so my spouse could lubricate them with stove oil.

For months, whenever I looked at a bird, that foul odor assailed my olfactory senses.

Count memories often involve specific birds.

One year, several common snipe feeding in a marshy field were a special surprise.

That marsh became a regular stop on future counts and remains so to this day.

“Our” snipe were often the only ones turned up among all the areas in the count circle.

Audubon assigns a large circle to each chapter and it remains the same every year.

The circle is broken into smaller areas that also stay the same from year to year.

The Christmas Bird Count is more than 100 years old.

It began when a group of birders decided to replace the Christmas Day bird hunt.

Instead of trying to shoot as many birds as possible, they decided to count all the birds they could see.

That small group of birders started what has become the largest birding event in the world.

From a bird’s point of view it made the season more merry.

For decades, it has also provided birdwatchers with some special memories of Christmas Past.

_________

Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected]

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