Remembering my first Christmas Bird Count

On the 120th Anniversary, join an Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count near you

I suppose the reason I love the Christmas Bird Count is easy for me – I have been doing this for more than twenty years.  I love tradition, comraderie and adventure – Christmas Bird Counts have all of these things.  I participated in my first Christmas Bird Count while in my twenties in Massachusetts – it was the Stellwagen Bank Count off the tip of Cape Cod – this meant heading out by whale boat into the frigid Atlantic Ocean wrapped in every piece of cold weather clothing I owned. 

My friend and I went along, not great birders, not really appropriately dressed, and didn’t know anyone but were soon welcomed by a crowd of young men our age (one of whom I later married).  Within minutes, we were delighted to see Atlantic White-sided dolphins playing in the wake of the boat and birders started yelling out names of birds “long-tailed duck” “common loon” “razorbill” “kittiwake” and we slid from one side of the boat to the other, trying to keep up, steadying our binoculars and hoping not to get sea sick.  The veteran birders on the boat helped us along the way. 

Things got particularly exciting when Wayne Petersen, one of Mass Audubon’s ornithologists, yelled “Redpoll” from the front of the boat.  Based on the sound of his voice, I knew this was not something normal.  Sure enough, a flock of tiny brown songbirds who look like they have dipped their foreheads in cherry juice, flew by in the middle of the ocean.  Now that was odd.  Even I knew that.  These birds spend the winter in New England, in forests or at bird feeders.  What they were doing out over the open ocean I’ll never know but I’m sure they were headed to land as quickly as they could fly.

This began a tradition I have held onto where ever I have lived or found myself in late December.  Spending a full day outside focused on nothing but searching for birds and enjoying the company of those around you is a great break and way to appreciate your surroundings in a very busy world. There is always the excitement of wondering if you will find a rare bird or just enjoying the common birds that spend the winter wherever you are.  Most counts end in some kind of social gathering involving a lot of food and a chance to share stories, compare birds, and compile lists. 

Audubon’s Christmas Bird Counts have been running for 120 years and are day-long counts, scheduled during a 2 week window between mid December and early January (this year Saturday, December 14, 2019 through Sunday, January 5, 2020 ). You can look on Audubon’s website to find a count in California – there are many to choose from and they are free! 

If you look at our online map you can find a count year you and click on the circle for the contact information for the count compiler (signing up in advance is required).  Everyone is welcome!  If you are a beginning birder, just let the count compiler know and they can pair you with a more seasoned birder.  You could spend the whole day birding, a few hours, or even just count the birds in your backyard. 

Consider participating, have fun, and know you are contributing data that has been running for 120 years!  Data collected by CBCs are a unique dataset that have helped us learn about how bird populations are changing in some areas, ranges are shifting, and the impacts of climate change.  There truly is no other database like it that has been running for so long.  Help us learn about birds in the winter, whether it is the wandering Redpoll or the flock of white-crowned sparrows at your backyard feeder. 

How you can help, right now