OK everyone, let's sing along (you know the tune): 12 turkeys scratching; 11 crows a cawing; 10 owls hooting; nine nuthatches; eight common eiders; seven ravens croaking, six cedar waxwings; FIVE CHIC-A-DEES, four cardinals, three red polls, two mourning doves; and a partridge (well, actually, a ruffed grouse ...) in a pine tree!
If you are looking to get outdoors before the snow really flies, and make your next outdoor adventure a small part of something very big and very important, you really should check out the 113th annual National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) with counts scheduled from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5.
With over 50,000 participants each year in over 2,000 locations, it's the largest and longest on-going biological survey in history, Citizen Science at its best. And, yes, you can be an important part of it and have great fun outdoors at the same time. Chances are you'll get to meet some very interesting, dedicated, fun people. And you're almost guaranteed to learn things you didn't know about the wild world you are walking through.
The purpose of the CBC is to monitor the ebb and flow of bird populations across the U.S. (and the whole Western Hemisphere). The information gathered is particularly critical in the face of accelerated climate change, habitat loss and widespread pollution -- all caused by human beings.
Since this is a scientific survey, not a contest (though there is a strong element of friendly competition among the groups), you can't roam just anywhere and count the birds you see.
You used to have to pay a $5 fee to become an official participant (students were always exempt), but for 2012 they've gone paperless for their reports and no longer charge (I'd suggest making a $10 donation instead. It's for a good cause). Then you show up on the designated day and time, and are assigned to a group and a route within a 15-mile diameter circle (177 square miles.) By covering the same territory in the same way, year after year, the CBC has built up a long-term profile of bird populations in that area. Add all the areas together, and you get a living snapshot of the whole picture.
But I don't want to make the whole thing sound like a high-school science class. It isn't. It's more like a field trip with your friends -- just plain fun. You drive some place, get out and walk, look and listen.
The people with more experience teach the people with less experience how to spot and identify birds. Usually, there's a bit of natural history involved -- why that bird was here, what's been happening to this or that species.
It's amazing how much things change. When I first started birding, wild turkeys were rare, mourning doves in winter even rarer, and pileated woodpeckers were just beginning to recover from the devastation caused by DDT. Now, I see all three species frequently throughout the winter. Other, more northern species (various crossbills and redpolls), which sometimes visit in deep winter, seem to me to be less often seen than they used to be.
Anyone can do it. You can hike as much or as little as you wish (some people survey their backyard feeders, others climb mountains). If you've never seriously studied birds, it's a terrific introduction to what could be a life-long passion.
Life isn't a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!
Bird counts yesterday and today
Just as our celebration of Christmas grew out of an older religious tradition, the CBC grew out of the Christmas "Side Hunt": Celebrants would choose sides and go afield with their guns. The winners were whoever brought in the biggest pile of dead birds and animals. That was a different time and a different mindset. Beginning on Christmas Day, 1900, the hunt tradition was co-opted by ornithologist Frank Chapman of the Audubon Society. Twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held in 1900 with 27 birders participating. Those original 27 tallied 90 species.
New England has a long history with the CBC. Of the original 25 counts, six were in New England: Keene, N.H.; Belmont, Cambridge, Boston and Winchester, Mass., and Bristol and Norwalk, Conn. Now, there are 18 count circles scheduled in Connecticut, 34 in Massachusetts. 21 in New Hampshire (including the original Keene circle), and 32 in Maine.
To find a count, one place to start is the National Audubon Society's website at www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/. Or, you can get involved through your state Audubon Society:
Connecticut -- www.ctaudubon.org; 203-259-6305
Maine -- www.maineaudubon.org; 207-781-2330
Massachusetts -- www.massaudubon.org; 1-800-AUDUBON
New Hampshire -- www.nhaudubon.org; 603 224-9909
Vermont -- vt.audubon.org; 802-434-3068
If you can't do the CBC, there's also a Backyard Bird Count in February. Go www.birdsource.org/gbbc for more information. The state organizations listed above may also have Backyard bird surveys.
Mother Nature's snow machine is just getting going, but I have it on good authority that at least a couple of cross-country ski areas are giving her a hand.
Trapp Family Lodge 802-253-8511; www.trappfamily.com ) in Stowe, Vermont has fired up their snowmakers but haven't opened their trails yet. Maybe by this weekend ...
Mountain Top Inn (800-445-2100; www.mountaintopinn.com) in Chittenden, Vermont is blowing snow on their tubing hill and will start on their cross-country loop soon.
Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center (603-466-2333; www.greatglentrails.com) in Pinkham Notch, NH is ready to flip the switch on their snowmaking, probably right after the weekend warm-up that's predicted.
Grafton Ponds Recreation Center ( 1-800- 843-1801; www.graftonponds.com) in Grafton, Vermont fired up on Wednesday night -- expect an opening soon.
Weston Ski Track (781-891-6575; www. SkiBoston.com) hasn't blown snow yet, but they say they will for an early-December opening.