The annual Christmas Bird Count is a unique event – a community science project that has been going on for 117 years.
It began in 1900 when an ornithologist named Frank Chapman proposed a “bird census” on Christmas Day, instead of the traditional “side hunt”, where hunters would compete to bring in the most quarry over the course of the day. Somehow, even on that first count, 27 birders went out in 25 different locations across the USA and Canada, and accounted for 90 species of birds.
The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running wildlife census of its type, and the collected data is important to numerous organizations and scientists who are monitoring bird health and developing conservation initiatives. It now takes place anytime between Dec. 14th-Jan. 5th depending on local organizers, and each year thousands of folks go out to officially check in with their neighborhood bird populations. The “CBC” has been managed by the Audubon Society since the beginning, and you can read more about the history of the event HERE.
I have fuzzy memories of going on Christmas Bird Counts as a kid with my Dad when we lived in New Mexico, getting up while it was still dark and walking out into the hogback to look for owls, or driving to a lake where sleepy ducks made funny noises as the sun crept over the top of the mesa.
My first CBC in Pittsburgh, PA, was not quite as mysterious – but it met the assumed CBC criteria of braving the elements in service of the birds. After a week of moderate temps, I woke on Dec. 30th to 18 degrees and snow. The roads in the city were treacherous, to say the least.
I had connected with the Three Rivers Birding Club a few weeks prior, and been assigned a portion of Frick Park that I frequent regularly, so fortunately for me I spent the day only a mile from my house (although to my credit – or as proof of my craziness – I never went home to warm up).
I wasn’t out before dawn, but I was down in the park by 8 AM. I had high hopes for the day, but faced with the weather my expectations, at least for the moment, were fairly low. I headed into Frick Park, at the Nine Mile Run end by the Irish Center, and hadn’t walked more than 5 steps before I saw a Northern Flicker. Even as I properly took note of the bird, other motion caught my eye and a Golden-crowned Kinglet materialized with a flutter. From there, despite the snow that fell relentlessly until 1 PM, the day’s bird activity didn’t even remotely disappoint.
It almost seemed like the birds knew what was up, and presented themselves for accounting. I saw more species than usual, more or less checked off the list of possibilities for the area. Granted, I was at it all day. But for example, when I hiked up the hill to where I’d seen a Pileated Woodpecker 8 months before, there was a Pileated Woodpecker for me, winging through the woods in spectacular fashion and then pecking away at a nearby tree until I got hungry myself and had to wander off to find my own lunch.
I met up with some of the other Three River Birding Club members around 12:45 PM, at the home of founders Jack and Sue Solomon. Food was shared, and birding tales were told. Some folks who had been out since 5 AM knocked off home or at least snatched a nap on the couch, but a couple of groups went back out for more counting. I took Sue and a couple of fellows back down to Frick Park to help me look for a possible Winer Wren that I’d caught an inconclusive glimpse of earlier.
We spent an hour quietly poking along the edge of the Nine Mile Run, hoping to coax a wren out, but only turned up the more typical Carolina Wrens and a couple of Song Sparrows. I took Sue and company back home, and then returned to the park for a few more hours.
The snow had finally stopped, and although it was cold and less birdy in the afternoon, I still ticked off a few more species as I made my way up a different hillside, and then into Falls Ravine.
I was determined to find an owl, or rather I desperately hoped that I would. There are a couple of species of owls that live in the park, but I had never found one despite other days of “desperate hope”. Still, this day felt lucky.
I didn’t find an owl until just after 5:00 PM, when dusk was definitely settling and I was turned towards home at last. The little Eastern Screech Owl turned up sitting, of all places, in one of the bird boxes that the park has provided. It was a dark little puff of owlish face, framed against the wood of the box, and I had to stifle a gleeful shout. I got a nice long look at it before some bikers passed by and spooked it away.
The owl was pretty much my last bird of the day, and a very pleasant note to end on. All together I saw 21 species of birds (and walked 7.5 miles back and forth across the bottom of Frick Park) which, given the snow and temps, was a solid turnout and a job well done, I thought. Home at last to warm up, eat, and tally before both myself and the birds tucked in for a good night sleep.