A cold rain pelts Angela Dimmitt as she stands at the edge of a hardwood forest in New Milford, Conn., aiming her binoculars at the tops of towering oak and hickory trees.
“Psh, psh, psh,” she whispers. Within seconds, dozens of birds dart among the bare branches. Dimmit identifies and counts each bird. “Here’s a rare one, a hermit thrush. Excellent,” she says. “And those are juncos . . . 15, 16, 17.”
For 30 years, Dimmitt has participated in the Christmas Bird Count, the world’s oldest and largest wildlife survey, begun in 1900 by ornithologist Frank Chapman, who proposed an alternative to the traditional Christmas “side hunts.” Concerned about declining populations, Chapman suggested counting birds, rather than killing them.
The first Christmas Day bird count attracted 27 participants in 13 states and two Canadian provinces. Today, 57,000 volunteer birders fan out with binoculars and field guides from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 to identify and count millions of birds across the Western Hemisphere.
Working in pairs and small groups, participants travel by foot, car, bicycle, boat, sled and horseback, exploring woodlands and wetlands, lawns and landfills, parks and pastures in more than 2,000 designated counting circles, each measuring 15 miles in diameter.
“You go everywhere you legally can and count birds,” says Dimmitt, 65, while slowly driving her SUV along twisting roads with her eyes and ears alert for hairy woodpeckers, pine siskins and other birds generally spotted in western Connecticut in wintertime.
Topping a hill, Dimmitt suddenly hits the brakes. In the valley below, 10 wild turkeys strut across an open field. She beams under her soggy hat as she reaches for her checklist to record another bird sighting.
Across the United States, bird watchers identify hundreds of species during the Christmas Bird Count. Of the 69 million birds counted last year, among the most common sightings were American crows and robins, house sparrows, black-capped chickadees, Canada geese and blue jays.
Less typical “finds” were regional, such as spectacled eider ducks in Alaska, wrentits in coastal California, dovekies in New England and spot-breasted orioles in Miami, Fla. Each year, one or two rare species surface during the count, such as a Craveri’s murrelet, a small seabird that typically winters along the Pacific coast of Mexico, that was spotted during last season’s count in the waters off Crystal Springs, Calif.
The wealth of data gathered by the “citizen scientists” and published annually helps researchers recognize trends in bird populations and offers clues to the health of the environment, says Geoffrey LeBaron, of Williamsburg, Mass., director of the Christmas Bird Count for the National Audubon Society.
“The passion that people develop for birds is what makes this program succeed,” LeBaron says. “The count is an important part of people’s holiday tradition.”
Thrill of the count
During the bird count in Pueblo, Colo., last December, Mark Yaeger set his sights and hopes on glimpsing a yellow-bellied sapsucker.
“He’s rare for Colorado and he was here last Saturday,” says Yaeger, 56, focusing his binoculars on a towering pine in Pueblo City Park. “There’s a fresh sap well,” he says to fellow birder Elaine Salmento, pointing out a smattering of holes drilled in a tree trunk.
She nods and the two remain quiet for several minutes, except for the whistles and calls Yeager makes to attract birds.
Throughout the day, a dozen bird watchers scour the park along the Arkansas River and a stream inside the park zoo, both areas alive with mourning doves and mallards, warblers and woodpeckers. Salmento stays busy jotting down bird names and numbers.
“Birding makes everything interesting,” says Salmento, 35, of Parker, Colo. (pop. 23,558). “You can bird the interstate going 70 miles an hour.” She adds, “I love being outside and seeing something out of the ordinary.”
At dusk, the bird watchers meet at Yaeger’s downtown art studio where they swap “hunting” stories and warm themselves over bowls of chili and brownies. Sitting in a circle, they report identifying 124 different species and congratulate each other on unusual sightings.
Yaeger, who had hoped to see the yellow-bellied sapsucker again, didn’t spot the bird, despite scouting the pines many times throughout the day. However, he glimpsed another unexpected and off-course visitor in a juniper bush.
“A Nashville warbler,” he enthusiastically tells the group.
King of the counts
While thousands of people participate in one, or maybe two bird counts each winter, Paul Sykes attends a dozen or more over the holiday season, traveling to Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
“It’s a fun thing and a tradition,” says Sykes, 69, of Watkinsville, Ga. (pop. 2,097), who has taken part in the Christmas Bird Count the last 54 years.
Sykes attended his first count at age 15 at the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia Beach, Va., and his parents encouraged his hobby. “My mom would fix me a big breakfast before the count, and before I could drive, my dad would take me and pick me up,” he recalls.
Helping monitor the bird population is important to Sykes, a wildlife biologist for the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Athens, Ga. “When I started, I’d see huge flocks of American goldfinches of 100 or 200 at a time,” he says. “Now, maybe I’ll see one or two at a time, or a dozen at most.”
Likewise, Sykes has witnessed a decline in the number of waterfowl. Mild winters and habitat destruction are possible causes, he says.
Sykes’ own lawn is a sanctuary for birds. He buys 700 pounds of seed and 40 blocks of suet each year to stock his feeders.
“Birding is a fantastic hobby and good therapy,” Sykes says. Even people who are homebound or in nursing homes can enjoy watching feeders—and identifying birds for the Christmas Bird Count.
For avid bird watchers, the Christmas Bird Count is not only a great opportunity to get outdoors, it’s also a friendly competition to see who can count the most birds in 24 hours.
For Dimmitt and her fellow bird watchers, the count begins before dawn on New Year’s Day, prowling for owls by moonlight. Team members pack snacks so they can eat in the field and scan the trees and skies until dusk, hoping to spot another species.
Counting on Jan. 1 is ideal, says Dave Babington, 56, of Washington, Conn. (pop. 3,596). “Birders can get their yearly lists off to a good start,” he says.
For bird watchers, though, the joy of the Christmas Bird Count is seeing hundreds of beautiful birds, from brilliant red cardinals eating at backyard feeders to graceful bald eagles soaring along free-flowing rivers.
“Birds are wonderful to watch. They’re miraculous in that they survive weather that we couldn’t survive,” Dimmitt says. “It’s a fact that wherever you go, there are birds to enjoy and refresh your sense of balance in the world.”