A Beginning Birder's First Christmas Bird Count

Follow along on a full day of birding and community science, and get inspired to sign up for a Christmas Bird Count near you.

In the dawn light of the gas station parking lot, I sit in my car and wait for David Hartgrove, the longtime Halifax River Audubon Society member and conservation chair with whom I’m assigned to tag along today. As I sip my coffee, a black chicken struts across the sidewalk in front of me. One, I think to myself, and in my mind, my first Christmas Bird Count has officially begun.

When David pulls up, he’s pleased to tell me he’s already counted the first bird of the day: an Eastern Phoebe. In turn, I tell him about the chicken, and it’s then that I learn my first lesson of the day: only in the Keys do we count chickens as part of the Christmas Bird Count. Here in Lake County, they’re scattered around front yards like plastic flamingos, and they’re just as useless for today’s count (sorry, chickens).

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual community-science initiative that began on Christmas Day, 1900, at a time when bird hunting on Christmas was a tradition for many. Noticing declining bird populations, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman organized the first count, and today, scientists still use the data collected from year to year to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America and the Western Hemisphere. Counts take place between December 14 and January 5, and tens of thousands of volunteers participate each year.

David and I are assigned to cover a section of the Zellwood/Mount Dora count circle, a 15-mile radius of suburban and rural land that at one time had the highest inland counts in the state. That impressive statistic is partly why I chose this count for my first experience, but it’s also one of the closest to my home near Orlando. It’s no accident that I’m paired with David: He has been involved with Halifax River Audubon for decades, serving as the president and in other leadership roles for many years, and he leads birding trips across the state. I have only been birding for just over a year, and until this morning, I wasn’t even sure what a bird count involved. I tell you this to illustrate that truly anyone can participate in the Christmas Bird Count — click here to find a Count happening near you.

In the passenger seat I sit hunched forward, binoculars in hand, as David drives up and down quiet residential roads. When one of us spots a bird, he slows down or pulls over if it’s safe to do so. We stop and get out in front of a big lake dotted with black and white floating…somethings. Trudging closer across dew-covered grass, I raise my binoculars — and Hooded Mergansers come into view. These are lifers for me, my first time seeing their funny white bouffants in the wild. I’m in quiet awe as David records the flock using the eBird app on his phone. We hang around for a few more minutes, counting Mallards and following a Red-bellied Woodpecker up a tree with our binoculars.

We keep covering more ground, and by 8:15 a.m., we’ve logged 11 different species, including Turkey Vultures, American Crows, Eastern Bluebirds, more phoebes, several American Kestrels, and another lifer for me: a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. At another stop, David and I discover that we share the same spark bird, the species that got us interested in birding—a Loggerhead Shrike—as one perches on a wire overhead. Driving past a cemetery, I spot half a dozen Killdeer foraging between the headstones.

As the day goes on, I learn lots of bird ID tidbits. I think I can just about tell the difference between a Palm Warbler and a Pine Warbler. It’s an unusually windy day, and by the time we stop for lunch, I’ve learned for myself why birding trips are usually so early in the morning. We cover the rest of our ground, sticking to more shielded areas in hopes of finding birds hiding out from the wind, but it’s nowhere near as fruitful (birdful?) as the morning. Around 2 p.m., we hit a goldmine: a busy lake behind a house, and the homeowner is outside so we can ask him for access. He obliges, and even leads us down to the shore to learn more about what we’re doing. “What birds are you looking for?” he asks as a flock of American Coots paddle by. “All of them!” I reply, leaving out the part about the chickens as well as the Peking Ducks we saw in a fenced yard earlier. A Common Gallinule, Little Blue Heron, some Canada Geese, and several Great Egrets round out this beautiful stop.

By the time we wrap up, we’ve counted 34 unique species, totaling hundreds of individual birds. I’ve also learned a lot more about David, a birder with nearly half a century of knowledge and passion to share. His love of birds has taken him to Cuba, the Canadian Maritimes, and Panama, just to name a few. He’s signed up for three more Christmas Bird Count circles over the next three weeks, including two more this weekend alone. Maybe when I sat in my car watching a parking lot chicken before sunrise, I couldn’t have imagined being so passionate about birds to do this three times in a span of four days, but I get it now. I think the Christmas Bird Count will be part of my own holiday traditions for years to come.

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