Thursday, December 29, 2011

Our Christmas bird count

At the point of trying to take some sort of photo ending with this blurry photo of a kestrel, it was  nearing noon and the sky around us was blue. But when I looked out the door at 6 a.m. letting the dogs out first thing, the snow was blowing, winds high and the cold didn't creep in around my ankles, it rushed in and froze my toes immediately.

It was a terrible start to the day. The dogs waited impatiently while I cleaned the car off, not quite shivering, they are afterall Labs with lots of padding. Then we walked the pasture - the snow was determined to wet my feet and fell inside my boots - in spots it was over a foot deep, and blowing across the pathways, the field and the roads. Not promising for a day to watch and count birds. I didn't want to be out in this.

The snow stung my cheeks as we walked and Bliss bounded -  well - blissfully - through the white mounds which both dogs love to distraction, rolling in it, snuffling for mice in it, and gulping great mouthfuls of it as if I didn't ever leave water out for them and they were dying of thirst.

Finally getting on the road, with trepidation and a phone call to my 94 year old partner in this adventure that I'd be a bit late, I drove slowly towards town to pick her up.

"What a day," I thought miserably wishing that the snow storm that had been promised had held off for at least one more day.

However when we were both comfortably ensconced in the car, we decided that we would continue as we normally did. Dorothy and I have been doing the Christmas bird count for probably nine years now and so we headed for a village between the town and where I live, to see what the roads were like.

Dorothy had already received a phone call telling her we should not attempt to reach a couple of birders who have feeders in the back country - roads were too poorly tended. So we had a few birds to report at least. Add to that, the collection of finches, jays and sparrows that habituate my home and devour any and all seed - and suet. They had surprised me by showing up when it began to get light, hungry and obviously intent on breakfast.

Ultimately I turned onto a side road with some nervousness. The road leads up a hill, it was white with snow. We crept up beside a dairy barn, the cows were outside eating their hay already. Not a sign of a pigeon, or rock dove as they are still sometimes called... often we get at least four or five here. The farmer's tractor lights were flashing as he ploughed out the lane beside the barn. On we went up the hill, clearly disappointed and beginning to think the day would be a bust.

The car tracked like a panther up the hill. Why had I worried I wondered.

And so it went.

Our first stop was a home about 200 yards off the road, and fortunately the owner had been busy dragging a log behind his truck, ploughing the road. I followed him up to his home. He had not seen any birds that morning he claimed and went back to dragging the log. I manoevred the car into a good position to watch his feeder... and what a treat! From no birds to a bunch of chickadees, American Tree Sparrows, a tiny goldfinch and a purple finch. We were delighted.

After several more passes with the log, the owner got out and we said farewell, moving along the amazingly well packed drive with ease.

It continued to snow and blow, but in some parts of the 90 something kilometres we covered yesterday, it appeared to be letting up. Finally a bit of sun gleamed through the heavy cloud cover.

It was a very successful day. We laughed a lot, we saw lots of birds - some we'd not seen on bird counts before - a mallard and a goldeneye - we don't see ducks too often since we're mostly inland and the people who count along the shore get all the ducks and gulls. By the time I'd gone home, been greeted by the two ravens who live around here and always make sure to fly over and call out if they see me and the dogs outside, it was sunny and lovely.

When we gathered later to compare notes and complete the count, we found many had had a very difficult time, with snow blowing straight off the water into their faces, unable to see, let alone count, but they too as the day progressed, enjoyed the day and the challenges. Finally we were about in the middle of the pack in terms of what we'd seen, about 44 species, we had a high number of goldfinches for the year, and a new species to add to the count - a harlequin duck.

The snow blanketing the trees, grasses, roads and everything made it a pretty day - and though it was cold, we all were safe and happy to have completed another Christmas bird count.

Participating in this kind of activity always gives me a sense of community and of being part of something much larger than just this small area in which I live - bird watching the world over is the "hobby" that is growing faster than any other. And as we count birds and recognize the dwindling numbers in most species over the years not only here but globally as well, we re-commit to helping mitigate climate change.

Hopefully you have had or are having a similarly neat experience that ends happily and satisfactorily and are looking forward to a healthy happy year in 2012.


  1. Sounds like a nearly perfect day to me. Loved that the fellow was plowing his driveway by dragging a log, haven't seen that done for quite some time. Too hilly around here to do that, but it is useful where it is level. Forty four birds in a snow storm is an excellent count!

  2. Thanks for stopping by Bill - I thought you'd find this adventure was amazing when the clouds opened and there was a circle of blue, which spread and made it much more fun - and you're right, none of us thought we'd get our usual number of species - though some weren't seen at all - wild turkeys for one when we used to count up in the thousands... over hunting?