Counting Birds for Christmas

My entire focus this week was figuring out how to make it to the Christmas Count at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois with enough energy to spare. It turned out to be well worth it. I had the time of my life with great companions and some pretty special birds.

You never know what to expect on a Christmas Count. Weather is perhaps the deciding factor, both for the birds and the humans. For instance, if it’s too cold and all the water is frozen, you won’t see any waterfowl, save for a few geese in fields. Yesterday it was snowing in the morning but there was still open water. We had over a thousand Canada Geese, although no more than three or four hundred at any given spot, five Great Blue Herons, several Ring-Billed Gulls, American Black Ducks, a Ruddy Duck, and of course Mallards. Our group was not assigned to all the open water areas so I think this was all we saw, but I’m sure more species were seen by the other two groups.

In one field close to where we flushed a couple Common Snipe, there were a couple hundred Canada Geese and also four Greater White-Fronted Geese, and that’s when I took out my point-and-shoot camera. Next year I think I’ll take it out sooner, because I could have gotten a few more pictures without being too distracted from looking for or the counting the birds (I’m kicking myself now for not getting a picture of three unidentified flying swans, spectacular in their whiteness against the grey sky).

Greater White-Fronted Goose

After lunch it wasn’t snowing anymore and although the sun never made it through the cloud cover, we began to see a few more passerines, finding mixed flocks of Northern Cardinals, American Tree Sparrows and Dark-Eyed Juncos. Groups of Horned Larks foraged in the fields and on the road. Traveling by car, we got out here and there to see if we could scare up some birds. Wandering about in stubbly fields or evergreen stands where pockets of water were starting to freeze was noisy and exhausting. Climbing over one fallen log must have done something to my right thigh muscle. When I got up this morning, that ache was gone but replaced by several others. Run over by the proverbial truck.

On one of those walks out in an open field we found a cooperative Northern Shrike. Encouraged that I was able to get some kind of image of him, I took a few shots. The shrike became intrigued, perhaps, by the attention and flew in closer.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike, closer...

Wandering about in such a vast open space takes one away from congestion, traffic noise, cell phones; it’s just you, your companions and the landscape. And in my case, parts of Bach A Major and A minor English suites. Whatever my brain decided I should have been practicing it did so, providing me a little traveling music.

Toward the end of the day we were trying to find owls in places other than the non-productive ones we’d been checking in the morning. We saw two Great Horned Owls fly into the trees. See if you can pick out the owl in this mess of branches.

The highlight, the perfect ending to a cold, cloudy, but fun day, was to see a Short-Eared Owl hunting in a field. It was too dark to take any pictures, but I will never forget the image of the owl dipping, rising, floating over the ground, disappearing when it blended in with the background.

I hadn’t done the count for a couple years and although I was familiar with the routine (form groups and take off for your first area at 7:00 a.m., wearing as much clothing as possible and don’t forget rubber boots), I noticed about an hour after lunch that instead of feeling tired and wanting to leave early as I had in previous years, I relished staying for the whole day. I had no other obligations dragging me away, so my focus on the day paid off. I was able to give in to the general giddiness and somewhat slap-happy all-for-one/one-for-all dedication of the group to finding more birds. I’ll never forget the supportive, funny, crazy group of birders I did the count with. The camaraderie was irreplaceable and will fortify me through a hellish year-end at the office.

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