Winter was brooding on the 4,000-foot Highlands plateau, reducing the countryside to a grey-on-grey landscape. Any birds still left on this mountain were surely holed up, sensing the 23-degree morning and snowstorm on the horizon.
But soon the branches began stirring and in an instant the treetops were teeming with a colony of birds swooping, darting, chirping and squawking. To a novice birder, the discovery of this new world was similar to standing in a pitch dark room, straining to see until suddenly shapes come into focus before your eyes.
Hutchins and his birding companions, Pat Davis and Jack Bornemann, tracked the mass of activity through binoculars, calling out the names of birds more for their own benefit than anything else.
For these birders, scanning for birds — whether they are driving to the grocery store or walking to the mailbox — has become more of an instinct than a hobby.
“When you’ve done it long enough it’s like being aware of the wind,” Davis said.
“It’s involuntary,” Hutchins said.
Piling back into the car, the bird tally began. How many song sparrows did we just see? Junkos? Chickadees?
The team was in a stiff competition with fellow birders from the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society to record as many sightings as they could in one morning. After the frenzied performance of the first jackpot, however, the parting words to the teams of birders earlier that morning suddenly sounded like impossible marching orders.
“Try not to count the same bird twice,” Edwin Poole, organizer of the count, told the birders as they headed out the door of the meeting room in the Highlands library for their assigned birding territory.
But as Davis, Hutchins and Bornemann carefully reconstructed their sightings, it was clear they were so familiar with bird behavior that the chaos in the treetops was not chaos at all. To them it was like watching people.
Their same mission is being played out by thousands of fellow birders all over the country this month. For more than 100 years, amateur birders have been conducting a nationwide bird survey each December.
Considered the largest and longest running citizen science effort, the tallies amassed over the decades provide significant biological data. The surveys have even detected ecological threats that otherwise might not have been pinpointed until it was too late to halt, such as wide-spread deaths of birds poisoned by DDT that lead to its eventual ban as a pesticide in 1972.
Back on the prowl, Hutchins’ team crept along a remote forested road, a flicker of motion in the treetops soon brought the team to a halt once more.
“Woodland birds stick together. Where there’s one, there’s more,” Hutchins said as the team piled out into the frozen forest. The prediction held true. Binoculars went up and the names of birds began flying.
“A golden crowned kinglet. Another white-breasted nuthatch. I think we’ve even got a pileated woodpecker. See? Working its way up this trunk, this one right here,” Hutchins said.
After a few minutes, they’d captured a full picture of the congregation. The birders walked back to the car and set off in search of the next hot spot.
Luck of the count
By mid-morning, the team was less than thrilled with their birding performance. In less than two hours, they would report back to the meeting room at the town library to present their list. Without a species to make the other teams jealous — either a rare bird or one that keeps to itself — the tabulations would not be nearly as much fun.
Suddenly, a silhouette the size of a large walnut darted across the road. Hutchins promptly killed the engine.
“I think it was a winter wren,” he told the team as they fluttered out. A winter wren would be a fine redemption for the team’s otherwise modest list, but the woods were still and the bird was nowhere in sight.
“How did you know it wasn’t a kinglet?” Davis asked Hutchins as they scanned for movement. Similar in color and size, yes, Hutchins said. But this bird hugged the ground when it darted across the road. Kinglets don’t fly that low, he said.
The lack of clear identification already let several birds slip by their list. When a bird darts too quickly across the road and vanishes into a dense thicket or the branches of a tall hemlock, it often goes uncounted. Sometimes a glimpse is all you need when dealing with distinctive birds. There’s a flash of color on the wing tip or crown, a stunted tail, a narrow head, a way of landing — something that leaves an imprint in the birder’s mind as clearly as if they saw a picture of their own mother flash in front them. But less distinctive birds leave a trail of ambiguity — was it a kinglet or wren?
The better the birder, the less sight time they need to know what they saw. But birders tolerate little margin of error. While close might count in horseshoes and hand grenades — it has no place in birding. Both frustrating and exhilarating, therein lies the challenge for birders, and for many the main draw of the sport.
Within a few seconds, the winter wren hopped out from behind a tree trunk and lingered long enough for the team to get a good long sighting. The team was giddy.
“We might be the only ones to see that today,” Hutchins said. “That’s a pretty good bird to find. It normally just kind of sulks about. It stays down in the brush a lot and it doesn’t sing very much.”
Spirits up, Hutchins decided to reveal another bit of good news to the team.
“We’ve already found a barned owl this morning,” he said. It was far from luck, however. Hutchins knew just where the barned owl lived and on his way to the team briefings, he stopped the car and loitered about until he heard its distinctive call. In birder’s ethos, a clear call is as good as a sighting.
“It is considered legal or ethical to identify them by their calls if you really know them,” Davis said.
Davis recalled her encounter with the guru of bird calls and the father of modern birding, Roger Tory Peterson, at a birder’s convention in Georgia. Davis described Peterson strolling down a path, eyes locked on the ground, reciting species based on their squawks and chirps.
“I followed him around like a puppy dog the rest of the week,” Davis said. “My husband said he’d heard of groupies, but never bird groupies.”
Davis was also impressed by Peterson’s birding attire.
“He birded in a tweed sports coat,” she said.
Let the tallying begin!
By early afternoon, the teams of birders were back at the library meeting room gathered around hot bowls of chili. They kept their lists close to their chests during lunch. Some birders felt each other out for an indication of what species they had up their sleeves, but no specifics were revealed yet.
“Let’s just say what we lacked in quantity we made up for in quality,” said Cynthia Strain, considered one of the best birders in the club.
“Uh, oh, Brock, we better add some more species to our list,” Davis hollered across the room to Hutchins.
When it was time for the tallying. Hutchins read from a list of recognized species for the area, pausing after each one for the team leaders to report if and how many they’d seen.
Species after species, Strain’s list continued to trump the others. Davis suggested that Strain should have to call out her numbers first, so the other teams could tack some more on to their tally after hearing what Strain had to say. Others wanted to know how much Strain’s team paid to once again get assigned the territory that contains the best known birding habitat on the plateau.
But meanwhile, the team with the knockout, show-stopper species was quietly biding its time. When Hutchins got to the end of the waterfowl category and moved on to woodland species, a birder named Avary Doubleday stopped him, wanting to make an addition. Birders around the room pondered what species Hutchins left off the waterfowl list. Realizing he hadn’t, all eyes turned to Doubleday.
“We saw two sandhill cranes,” Doubleday announced.
Mild mayhem broke out. The sighting seemed impossible and was met instantly with questions — not the challenging sort, as doubting another birder’s assertion of what they saw is an insult — but questions of a curious nature expected to follow such news.
Sandhill cranes usually avoid the mountains during their migration south and the likelihood of being in just the right spot to see them overhead is minuscule. Any silent skeptics were won over, however, when Doubleday said the team had heard their distinct, unmistakable call.
“Well, this is historic moment in the Christmas bird count. I think it is a club record, too,” Hutchins said. The sighting also would put the club on the map with those tabulating the national results.
“And I thought we had a good list,” Strain said.
At least there’s always next year.