Here's a little confession for you: Though I urge you every year to get involved in Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, until last Saturday it had been three decades since I did one myself.Saturday I counted birds around Norris Dam in East Tennessee, where I spend much of my time these days-and by golly, I enjoyed it. The weather was raw and rainy, so we didn't find many species, but temperatures were well above freezing and the experience was fun.
In the 1960s and early '70s, my Christmas counts were captained by someone who approached them like armed combat. We rose at 3 a.m. so we could be in place before 5 a.m., listening for owls; we forged onward through late afternoon, never mind the weather. At 5 degrees in a gale and a foot of snow we stared across acres of icy ocean counting ducks-theoretically we shared a scope and tripod so we could examine all the ducks closely, but Fearless Leader was 11 inches taller than me, so the scope stood far over my head. I froze, I drooped, I missed ever seeing many of the birds on our lists. Sometime in the mid-1970s, I swore off. No more Christmas counts.
But last year's Norris count was shorthanded, so this year I volunteered. The compiler assigned me to count the area below Norris Dam with a Knoxville woman, Carole Gobert. Quaking in my boots, I asked her, "What time shall we start?"
"Oh," she said, "let's meet at 7:45 a.m." How civilized!
Our section of the count circle (15 miles in diameter, centered on the dam) included the Songbird Trail, a two-mile loop along the Clinch River that attracts fitness walkers and dog walkers along with the birders. Gobert regularly birds the trail, and I often walk it, so we were already familiar with most of the birds: ducks in the river, woodland birds beside the river, sparrows in the weedy fields away from the river. Gobert grew up in Altoona and I grew up in East Texas, but all the birds on this count in East Tennessee were familiar to us both.
We started at the dam with pigeons and starlings, then moved to the trail and studied the sparrows-whitethroats, song sparrows, chipping and field sparrows. Yellow-rumped warblers flitted through trail-side trees. Woodpeckers called and tapped above our heads-downy, hairy, red-bellied, flicker, yellow-breasted sapsucker. A pileated woodpecker flew past.
Goldfinches, titmice, chickadees, blue jays, crows, cardinals, mockingbirds, towhees, white-breasted nuthatches, a phoebe, a dove and a ruby-crowned kinglet all made it onto the list. One little flock of purple finches displayed their colors for us. Bluebirds and Carolina wrens sang constantly, everywhere we walked.
Downstream we found a single coot; kingfishers and great blue herons kept it company, but ducks were elusive. Two scoters that had hung out for weeks on that section of the Clinch were not in sight. Amazingly, not a single hawk, owl or vulture appeared all day.
A few brown thrashers skulked through the underbrush, their golden eyes glaring. A winter wren popped up from a brush pile to stare at us, flipping his stub of a tail; in woods beside a grove of hollies heavy with berries, a hermit thrush flew up to look us over.
Until late in the session the only waterfowl we saw were Canada geese, flying overhead. Finally, after studying every inch of our part of the Clinch, we found one measly pair of mallards.
We gave up in mid-afternoon. Back home, I sat down at the window and watched the thistle feeder until a single pine siskin showed up, to be added to the count.
Was it exciting? Not exactly. But it was a real pleasure to be outdoors, looking at birds in amiable company. I won't wait three decades to do it again.
Frances Hamilton has written about birds in Chester County since 1968. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.