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Field Notes from a Christmas Bird Count

It’s 5:30 am on a Thursday, a week before Christmas. The four of us stand under a starry sky on a country road a few miles outside of Blanchardville, peering into a darkened stand of white pine with our hands cupped to our ears. The temperature is near zero, so this is as much to keep our ears warm as it is to amplify the subtlest of sounds. After a minute or two, we hear the call we’ve been waiting for: Hoohoohoo … hoo-hoo.

We silently nod to one another and climb back into the station wagon, frost already forming on the hood.  

 “That’s the third owl,” someone says from the back seat. “We’re doing pretty well this morning.”

Cake donuts and a thermos of coffee are passed around as the car glides down a hill into a wide valley where trees border a frozen stream.

“Nice spot.”

“Let’s try it.”

This time, the only sound is the ticking of the engine as it cools, though we see a skunk slowly make its way across a field in the moonlight

We prowl back roads—Yankee Hollow, Rocky Knoll, Horseshoe Bend—stopping the car every mile or so to step out and listen. By sunrise we’ve found two more great horned owls, a barred owl, and a screech owl. 

As the sky brightens, small birds flit across the treetops, hungry after the chilly night. Invigorated by their energy, we move quickly up a hillside toward a house with a bird feeder. From the hilltop, a view of the Driftless landscape unfolds below with muted tones of winter field, wood, and sky punctuated by flashes of color from cardinals and blue jays. Lingering near the hilltop feeder, we quickly double the number of species we have observed since daybreak: black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, a flock of cedar waxwings.

Like thousands of others participating in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, we spend the entire day outdoors, documenting every species of bird we can find and recording their numbers. To do so, we visit a variety of habitats: unfrozen water for kingfishers and ducks, fields for hawks and buntings, and deep woods for nuthatches and woodpeckers. On foot and by car, we move through wide valleys of oak savanna, over winding streams, and past red wood and sandstone barns, always on the lookout for the next bird.

The annual Christmas Bird Count—or CBC for short—is one of the longest-running citizen science projects in the world. Established in 1900 by bird conservation pioneer Frank M. Chapman, the CBC today is an annual bird census with more than 2,500 participating communities across the United States, Canada, and Latin America.

An author of many books on ornithology and long-serving curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History, Chapman developed an interest in birds as a teenager growing up in West Englewood, New Jersey. He came up with the idea of a Christmas bird census as an alternative to the “side hunt,” a popular holiday activity in the late 19th century in which people competed to shoot as many birds as possible. 

Today, anyone can initiate a new Christmas Bird Count or join an existing one by contacting the National Audubon Society or, in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology. All Christmas Bird Counts are conducted within a fifteen-mile diameter circle on a single twenty-four-hour excursion between December 14 and January 5. Because there is a lot of ground to cover in one day (177 square miles), a person called a compiler divides the circle into sections and assigns one to every group of participants. The compiler is generally responsible for recruiting participants, coordinating coverage, compiling all group observations, and sharing them with the National Audubon Society.

By covering the same territory during the same period, year after year, CBC participants provide standardized information on bird population size and density. The aggregate data from the many decades of the count help inform scientists about long-term trends: declines in grassland birds wintering in the Northeast, for example, as agricultural practices change; or annual variation in the distribution of species known as boreal irruptives, which move great distances from Canada and Alaska into the contiguous United States based on food availability. CBC data are also available to the general public for personal research and record keeping. 

While the CBC is an important conservation tool, for many Americans it is a holiday tradition as meaningful as a trek to the Christmas tree farm or a New Year’s Eve toast with old friends. Christmas Bird Count culture is especially strong in Wisconsin, which is one of only three states with more than a hundred CBC circles (the other two—Texas and California—have much larger geographic areas and human populations). Participation in Wisconsin CBC circles ranges from a hundred or more people in Madison to a dozen or so participants in smaller communities like Florence (near Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and Friendship (in the Central Sands region).

In Blanchardville, about an hour southwest of Madison, the count is organized by CBC veteran Dave Willard. Dave has participated in 47 consecutive counts in Blanchardville since first joining the group as a graduate student in 1971. Dave grew up in Madison during the 1960s, the son of a UW–Madison chemistry professor. His interest in birds, sparked by a childhood encounter with a variety of colorful species feeding on fruit at his family’s apple orchard, developed into a life-long passion. Despite living in Chicago for the last several decades, Dave feels as though he has never really left Wisconsin when it comes to birding.

“I’ve still never done a Christmas Bird Count in Illinois,” he notes.

I met Dave while in high school, through mutual friends and a shared interest in birds. Since then, Dave has become a friend and mentor. This year, I’m participating in my sixth Blanchardville Christmas Count. Our tradition starts the evening before the count, when half a dozen cars with Illinois license plates (my own excluded) assemble in the parking lot of the Chalet Landhaus Inn in New Glarus. The majority of the ten to fifteen people who come together for the Blanchardville count are Dave’s friends and colleagues from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. They aren’t all professional ornithologists like Dave, who retired after a long career as the manager of the Field Museum’s massive bird collection. Some are graduate students, curators, specimen preparators, paleontologists, or field biologists, while others are retirees from teaching and other professions who, like Dave, now volunteer at the museum. 

Following greetings in the Chalet Landhaus lobby, we walk briskly along empty streets to the warm lights of the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant. Clad in sweaters and blue jeans, we enjoy rösti, spätzle, schnitzel, and, of course, New Glarus beer while speculating on what birds we’ll see and listening to stories about prior counts.

 Dave jokingly attributes the decline of house sparrows within the count circle to the absence of John Fitzpatrick (now director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), who in years past would knock on the doors of area farmhouses for permission to count in manure-crusted barnyards.

Someone else recalls the time we had pulled over in a small valley near Darlington when an Amish boy about twelve or thirteen drove up to us slowly in a wagon.

“Are you hunting squirrels?” he asked.

“No, counting birds.”

The boy simply nodded and flicked the reins.

Typically we are among the restaurant’s only patrons; the salad bar seems to have been set just for us, and the waiter has time to share jokes and take a group picture. After dinner, sated by beer, meat, and potatoes, we turn in early in preparation for pre-dawn owling. 

At the dam near the outlet of Yellowstone Lake, we find a winter wren in a cliffside tangle of trees. Something about this sheltered spot suits winter wrens, and the tiny, cheerful birds are found here almost every year, despite appearing nowhere else in the circle.

Like the winter wren, other species turn up year after year in the same spot. Where the road dips and rises on a series of small hills, we almost always find a rough-legged hawk. Because he is a dark morph—solid black, as opposed to the more common light morph, which is black and white—we suspect it is the same individual bird. Every autumn, he makes the same journey from the high Arctic to spend the winter in our circle.

While it is comforting to see the regulars, the real excitement of the CBC comes from the anticipation of surprises. Once, while walking down a narrow, snowy path near Yellowstone Lake, we spotted a group of robins in a patch of buckthorn. With them was a varied thrush, a beautiful black and orange visitor from the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest that appears in Wisconsin only a few times a year. 

Small groups of tree sparrows and juncos flush from the roadside as we pass by in the car. Dave says these birds often gather on the side of the road to eat the salt and fine grit. As we drive, he points to places—a bend in the road, a stand of trees, a farmstead—where the group has seen a rare bird during previous counts. 

“Right there, under those pines, is where the red crossbill was,” he says.

A glance at the data sheet on our clipboard, which has the complete count summary going back to 1971, shows that this particular bird made its only appearance in 1987. While this landscape is familiar to Dave, in many ways unchanged in the over forty years he has participated in the count, the last decade has seen more warmer, even snowless counts. The group has recorded an increasing number of waterfowl staying later into the season due to easy access to open, unfrozen lakes and streams. Some less hardy southern species, like the Carolina wren, have begun to appear more frequently in the count circle, despite not appearing at all during the 20th century. The documentation of changes such as these is what makes the CBC so valuable to conservationists.

At noon the groups convene for lunch at the Viking Café in downtown Blanchardville to share observations from the first half of the day and take a break from the cold. Pinochle players look up from their cards as we noisily move chairs around a large table. Noting our heavy coats and gloves, the waitress asks us if we’ve been out snowmobiling. Like the Amish boy, she is satisfied by a cursory explanation.

“Ah, well that explains the binoculars. Now, what would you all like for lunch?”

Over hamburgers and fries we talk about the morning: the birds, the weather, the challenges and triumphs.

“Big flock of snipe—probably a new record.”

“Lots of red-headed woodpeckers.”

“Sandhill cranes again.”

“Did you see the hoarfrost this morning? Beautiful.”

“This deep snow—brings the birds closer to the road to eat the salt. Hard to walk in, though.”

“We called AAA twice! No, we weren’t stuck. Just locked the keys inside.”

“Checked every stand of conifers for a long-eared owl. Finally got one.”

After lunch, the light begins to wane and the wind stiffens. Usually in the afternoon we spend more time in the car and add fewer new species of birds—maybe a northern harrier, or “gray ghost,” cruising over the fields, or a small group of Lapland longspurs in the roadside stubble, but not much else.

We stop in crossroad towns with a church, a bar, and a handful of homes near which we look for feeder-frequenting species like finches that we missed in the woods during the morning. Groups of sparrows huddle together in the bushes and chatter, but without the vigor they had at daybreak.

By 4:30 pm there is very little light left. So we break the circle and head back toward Madison and Chicago. Conversation in the car is sparse as we settle into the warm afterglow of a job well done.

“That was a good count for siskins.”

“Now, it’s been almost twenty years since a grouse was seen.”

By the time we have the city lights in view, we are already thinking about next year’s count.

“Will the lake be frozen?”

“Will there be another crossbill?”

“Will the regulars be back again?”

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Contributors

Max Witynski is a former editorial assistant for Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine. A Madison native and graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Witynski is interested in ecology and science communication. In his free time, Witynski enjoys birding, cycling, and cross-country skiing.

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