Why count birds?

PHOTO COURTESY OF Lauren Shaffer A pileated woodpecker searches for insects.

It’s pitch black inside and out when the alarm softly chimes Saturday morning. I quietly slip out to the den, into my long-johns and other warm clothes and gather up Dusky dog for his earlier-than-normal walk around the neighborhood pond. It’s 17 degrees, starless, but thankfully not windy as we finish our morning business.

Another half hour for a quick breakfast and I’m down the driveway and headed for my appointed rendezvous near Loyalsockville with old friends, and new. Fred, Darryl and I have been together for many of these early December mornings. Bruce is new to the group, and I’m looking forward to seeing how he does as our day unfolds.

I’m guessing that you may be thinking this is a story about deer hunting at this point, eh? It could be; I’ve certainly headed into the woods of Upper Fairfield Township plenty of frosty mornings in search of the elusive whitetail.

This particular Dec. 16th, however, is the day of Lycoming Audubon’s Williamsport-area Christmas Bird Count, and my friends and I are joining 20-some other Auduboners to count as many species and individual birds as we can find in the designated 15-mile diameter circle centered on the Green Bridge in Montoursville.

My group counts in the northern part of the circle, an area including part of Upper Fairfield Township and the Loyalsock Game Farm just across the creek to the west. This is the 28th consecutive year our local Audubon chapter has been doing this census of winter birds in this CBC area. Other local chapters of the National Audubon Society have been doing these counts since 1900.

My friends and I have permission on this day to bird on the Game Farm and we meet as we usually do at the little parking lot by the farm office. As we climb out of our vehicles, an adult bald eagle flies up the creek right past us. First bird of the day — a good omen.

We’ll walk and drive around the farm for the first three hours of the morning, and then split up and carefully note all the birds we can find and identify in two additional known “hot spots” nearby before we break for some warm lunch at Pier 87. We’re joined there by Ron and Carol, who have been counting in their designated area in Fairfield Township just to the south. We catch up as we eat and swap stories of the “good” birds that we’ve seen in the morning. Then we split up again and hit additional spots through late afternoon.

My group’s count for the day includes 33 species identified and a total of 772 individual birds.

I’m home just in time for supper, and pretty much exhausted in the way you feel after spending a long day outdoors in the frigid, beautiful, December woods and fields of northcentral Pennsylvania.

Why do we do it, you might ask. Well, for myself, it’s a number of things that pull me outside morning after frigid CBC morning. I love the “hunt,” as it were.

No gamebird is harvested, but the challenge is there nonetheless. Which piece of habitat, woods, brushy draw, open water of creek or pond, etc., will the birds be using in this particular weather? Keep a sharp eye, and ear, out for any sign of the quarry.

It’s all about the birds here of course, so there’s the mystery and beauty of these animals themselves to keep us interested and even fascinated as we search. You can’t hear the eerily rising and falling cry of the pileated woodpecker, pictured here, without flashing in your mind to some wild, wonderful place where you’ve encountered this magnificent bird before. The flocks of cedar waxwings that we find reveal, upon closer inspection with our binoculars, fantastically colored and patterned creatures — almost too beautiful to be real.

Then there’s the knowledge that the count lists that we share with the National Audubon Society year after year, decade after decade, provide invaluable data for many organizations to use in studying bird populations across the continent. The data is used to spot population trends in particular bird species and hopefully protections can be provided for the many species that continue to decline in numbers. It’s difficult to even imagine life without the woodpeckers, thrushes, sparrows and hundreds of other types of beloved birds that share our little piece of Penns Woods here in Lycoming and Clinton counties.

The CBCs also provide an annual opportunity to spend time in this shared effort with old birding friends. It’s an opportunity to catch up with their lives a little bit and to spend the day together, in a familiar area fraught with good memories of other days enjoyably spent.

I think our new guy this year enjoyed his day afield. Hopefully he will become part of our shared experience going forward. Later on, other birders from our count share their lists and experiences with the group, enhancing that feeling of shared enterprise. This may be the best part of these annual counts to me, personally.

Metzger is an enthusiastic birder and is vice president of the Lycoming Audubon Society.