All over Pennsylvania, Christmas Bird Counts were being postponed or cancelled because of the weather. But the date, I thought, was set in stone. We had to go ahead despite the snow. After all, participants in Alaska and northern Canada usually counted birds when the weather was challenging. That’s what I told my son, Steve, who was the Christmas Bird Count Compiler for our Juniata Valley Audubon Society. Our son, Dave, who was vice president of the group, agreed.
Counting birds for science began 110 years ago when Frank Chapman, the editor of Bird-Lore, appalled by a Christmas tradition of competing to shoot as many birds and other wild creatures as possible, decided to organize folks to count birds instead. Later, the fledgling National Audubon Society took up the cause. Ever since, growing numbers of participants have counted the numbers and species of birds on one day in a predetermined 15-mile-diameter circle. The period, set by the Society, begins before Christmas and ends a couple days after New Year’s Day. Each group that participates sends their tally to the Society.
Our property sits in a circle centered on Culp in Sinking Valley, a circle that was determined several years before we joined the local Audubon Society. Last year was my 30th CBC on our mountain. Steve and I first started back in December of 1978, when he was 14 and I was 38. On that day, the wind howled and the snow flurried as Steve and I walked miles. But we did get a gray catbird in the Far Field thicket.
I only missed one CBC here over the years and that was when Bruce and I joined our youngest son, Mark, also a birder, who had organized a CBC in Honduras during his stint in the Peace Corps. Off and on, as the boys came and went, they were part of the tradition. Whenever they were all here, the CBC was our favorite part of Christmas.
We had had some challenging weather over the years, but last year, for the first time I could remember, we were in the midst of a snow storm. By dawn, three inches had fallen atop a hardened layer of icy-snow from the previous week, and the weather prediction was dire. The birds (and squirrels) mobbed the feeders at daybreak, and I was kept busy counting the feeder birds and making cheese/mushroom omelets for breakfast. We doubted that our State College friend, Kurt Engstrom, and his enthusiastic, nine-year-old birding son, Carl, both of whom planned to go out with our eldest son Steve to comb the hollows on Sapsucker Ridge, would drive 25 miles in the snow. But Kurt, who is a keen hunter and fisher, was not deterred by the weather. And as soon as Carl arrived, he helped me count the feeder birds.
“A red-bellied woodpecker,” he called out. “Twenty-seven juncos!” “A white-breasted nuthatch!” He was even more excited than Steve and me, and reminded me of the younger Steve who had always considered Christmas Bird Count to be almost as wonderful as Christmas.
They headed out a half hour ahead of me — at 8:00. When I was ready to go, it took me several minutes to suit up for the 18-degree weather. Over my long underwear, I put on lined chinos and turtleneck shirt, a knit vest, hooded sweatshirt and finally a heavy, dark-blue, Woolrich winter coat that I have owned for years. It has ample pockets for my cell phone, water bottle, notebook, pens, and tissues. Over the hood, I wore an orange duck hunters’ hat that shielded my glasses from the snow.
My binoculars had to go underneath my jacket because they are not waterproof. Each time I saw a bird I had to unzipper my jacket before I could use the binoculars, which hindered my ability to identify birds quickly. I also pulled on my double-thick mittens. They too had to be removed before I could focus the binocular knob and with the snow streaming down, I did miss some birds.
On my feet were my Gore-Tex lined boots that had failed to keep water out four months after I bought them, but I had on double socks that I hoped would keep my feet reasonably warm and dry. Over the boots, I pulled on my Yak-Traks to prevent me from sliding on the ice beneath the snow. I also carried a walking stick. That too had to be juggled when I looked at birds.
Finally, I was ready to go.
“I’ll only walk up to the spruce grove and on to the Far Field,” I told my husband, Bruce, who was in charge of Steve’s four-year-old daughter Elanor. But just in case, I pointed out the soup I had made for the gang yesterday—a dried lima, tomato, corn and cheese soup supposedly designed for 12 cold, hungry people.
Almost immediately, I spotted a red-tailed hawk sitting on top of a power pole in the middle of First Field, his feathers ruffled by the breeze. Getting a red-tail on such a day seemed to be a good omen. But I walked through our deer exclosure and heard not a bird. I plodded on up to the spruce grove, which usually held golden-crowned kinglets and black-capped chickadees, but it was empty. Still, I stopped to admire the green boughs white with snow. This, for me, was as much about being out in a beautiful snowstorm as it was about counting birds. As I exited the spruce grove, I saw a dark-eyed junco and a northern cardinal.
On I went to the Far Field and circled it on Pennyroyal Trail. I flushed two ruffed grouse and felt vindicated even as I struggled to keep my balance on the sloping trail. Seduced by the snow, I stumbled past the barrier of fallen limbs that separated the end of the Far Field from a forest and the Second Thicket, catching and then wrenching out one of my feet from a foot-deep hole. Maybe the thicket would hold some birds. A couple winters ago I had found an eastern towhee in its midst. On this day, I heard and saw only a pair of cardinals.
Drawn by the distant cry of a blue jay, I started down an old logging road on our neighbor’s property, glad to see the stream flowing from its beginning below the thicket, even though it had been shorn of its protecting trees a decade or more ago after a poor logging job. Only brush grew haphazardly along its edges. Still, with snow covering its wounds, it looked lovely. I waded through the snow to take a closer look, and birds flew off in all directions. By the time I retrieved my binoculars, only one bird remained on a distant shrub. It was a male eastern bluebird, a prize bird for the day and weather.
I continued down the steep road, telling myself that I could always retrace my steps, but I had to get a look at Ruffed Grouse Hollow. Three decades ago, we had counted dozens of ruffed grouse along this trail during a CBC, hence, our name for it. In that hollow tucked between two steep ridges halfway down the mountain, a small stream burbled. The trail above the stream had recently been widened and cleared of fallen trees, and I had feared, last summer when I walked it with my granddaughter Eva, that it too would be logged. But so far it had not been, and I appreciated especially the many mature white pines laden with snow that grew in the midst of the deciduous forest.
I heard several more blue jays and a red-bellied woodpecker. Then I had a lovely vision of twelve American goldfinches, along with a blue jay, bathing in the stream. Two doe plowed through the snow and up the ridge. Breaking the charmed stillness, church chimes rang out from the town several miles away in the valley, and I was reminded of the old Christmas carol “Ring Out, Wild Bells.”
By then I knew I was committed to finishing the trail, which ended at a pond at the hunting lodge. No one was likely to be there, and maybe I could find a place to sit and get out of the snow. I needed a rest after my three-mile walk. A picnic table on the back porch provided almost complete protection and served as a mini-birdwatching site as more and more birds fluttered around a shrub that was draped with deer innards like a birds’ Christmas tree. A Carolina wren, several downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, dark-eyed juncos, three blue jays, two hairy woodpeckers, a red-bellied woodpecker and a white-breasted nuthatch flew in and out, calling and feeding a few feet from where I sat. The Carolina wren even landed on the porch floor at my feet.
The snowfall thinned and then thickened again, and I was reluctant to leave this alluring place miles from the nearest habitation. An American crow cawed, the first I had heard all day, as if to lead me onward. Regretfully, I left the porch sanctuary and walked uphill to open, windswept fields where only a dozen juncos pecked in the stubble, living up to their snowbirds’ nickname.
It was a long, hard slog back on the upper trail during which I neither saw nor heard any birds. By that time, my arthritic feet hurt, and I was feeling my age. Still, no pain could take away from my time outside on such a magical day.
Finally, I reached the Far Field and watched a pileated woodpecker working over a red maple tree and juncos foraging in the grasses. On the Far Field Road, I sat down on Coyote Bench to rest before walking the final half-mile home. At first, it was silent. Then, I heard the call of a northern flicker. It was bird number 17 for me and another gift this gracious day.
When I reached home, Elanor, Carl and Kurt were sledding and tobogganing with our son Dave on First Field. Carl and Kurt had wisely returned after a couple hours and son Steve had finished his section of the mountain, had had lunch with the others, and had headed out in his car to check the town and river. I had been gone almost six hours, walked six miles through what had become six inches of snow and was ready for a very late lunch and pot of tea.
The feeder counters had added several more species including, in Carl’s handwriting — white-brested (sic) nuthatch, cardnial (sic), goldfinh (sic), Carolina wern (sic), downy woodpecker, and blue jay — to the list I had started at dawn. His spelling may have been a little shaky, but his identifications were spot on.
Altogether, counting the feeder birds, I had 22 species. Steve added another ten, giving us a respectable 32. Not bad for a snowy day. Best of all, we had introduced Carl to his first Christmas Bird Count. May he have many, many more during his lifetime.