Oh, what fun it is to anticipate Christmas Bird Counts! This year I’ll be participating in only one (Parkersburg, West Virginia). Back in the day (when I lived in Indiana and had six weeks of vacation per year), I’d do the Lake Monroe and McCormick’s Creek counts, and once did the Spring Mill circle, too. Then Goose Pond was restored, and a new CBC circle established there rivaled and soon topped Lake Monroe as best in the state. I did that one a couple times, too.
Those places were all my stomping grounds—especially the Lake Monroe circle, which encompassed many places I birded throughout the year. That CBC circle was divided into about a dozen territories, but I was usually assigned to one of three that I grew to know very well. I don’t know how many years I did the Lake Monroe CBC—a dozen? 15?—but I knew just which bushes to beat in North Fork, where we had found brown creepers in years past at the Middle Fork boat launch, and where to hike at Pine Grove. I knew which houses had feeders, and which feeders had previously produced siskins.
Two years ago I moved to Marietta, Ohio, and this will be only my second CBC here. (Last year family illness kept me close to home during CBC season.) Two years ago, my first time with the Parkersburg CBC, I had no idea where we were. It was fun and exciting to find new places to bird, but I was too busy watching for birds out the car window to figure out our location on a map. I don’t think I could find any of those spots again if I had to.
The organizers of the Parkersburg count said I could join any team this year, pick any territory. Should I choose the same area I birded two years ago and hope to build familiarity, or should I explore a new location? Two years ago, we hit some back-country roads, watched a family of pileateds, got some winter-plumage chippies, and had a lovely, fun day. I would be happy to become more familiar with that area (wherever it is).
But I opted instead for adventure. I’ll be on a small boat on the Ohio River (apparently wearing a survival suit of some sort). Several islands in the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge are within the circle, and we’ll be visiting them—islands accessible only by boat. Cool! We’ll see lots of waterfowl, probably, and a few eagles, and a peregrine if we’re lucky. No doubt the group leaders will be familiar with hotspots along the river and the islands, but since I don’t have my own boat, it’s doubtful I’ll get to visit these areas again on my own. I won’t ever become familiar with this territory. Still, I welcome the opportunity to get a closer look at those islands that I have seen only with a watery foreground.
During next year’s CBC, I can build familiarity with one area if I want to, or be adventurous once again. Which is better? If I jump territories each year, I’ll never get to know one area well. I don’t think that’s good for the tally, even if it’s fun for me.
When I travel to a new spot for birds, I do my homework in advance to learn where the hotspots are, what habitats I’ll visit, what birds I should expect to see, what birds I should expect to work to see, etc. Part of the thrill of traveling to find birds is exploring new places, seeing new landscapes—enjoying the scenery. If I don’t see or register every single common bird, bummer, but no big deal.
But CBCs are different. If I’m really going to find every bird in the territory, then I shouldn’t be distracted by the sensory extravaganza of visiting a place for the first time. Hypothesis: Familiarity with the location improves a bird census.
So for the upcoming CBC, I will don that survival suit (whatever it is), board that boat, and try very hard not to think about being out on the water, not to admire the shape of the ridges above the river valley, not to recognize familiar places viewed from a new angle, not to enjoy the riverside architecture, or to wonder at the engineering of long bridges spanning the river as we motor under them. I’ll be there to find birds. Concentrate on birds. Wish me luck with that.
Who knows: Maybe frigid weather will arrive by then, and bring with it a long-tailed duck or red-necked grebe! Odds are against it since the Great Lakes haven’t frozen, but such rarities are within the realm of possibility. A scoter or an odd gull are more likely. Oh boy! Such thoughts are the blinders I need to focus on birds in an unfamiliar area.
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1979, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.