A first-timer shares her experiences from the annual Cape Cod Christmas Bird Count
While I have grown up with a healthy love of nature, often spending childhood afternoons in the woods, in my backyard, or on the beaches down the street, I somehow never got into the world of birding.We had bird feeders at my house, and sure, I knew the usual suspects—the black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches. But beyond my cursory knowledge, I never paid much attention to them. That all changed after a morning spent tagging along with a small crew of birders involved in the Buzzards Bay Christmas Bird Count last December.
If you have never tried birding, here is why you should. First, the geography of our area—Cape Cod’s familiar hook-armed peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic—with our expanses of marshland, coastal inlets, and protected waters means that we are blessed with some of the best birding on the East Coast. Second, it is a new way to experience your surroundings, whether it be the forests, our backyard, or the beach—a place we have all been a zillion times but perhaps have never really seen (were there always that many birds in the water?). Third, you will discover hidden parts of the Cape you have never been to before.
The striking, wonderful thing about birding is that it is slow. You must move slowly. You must stop, wait, look around, and observe. It requires patience and time. Instead of bustling through the beach trails to work up a sweat and go as far as you can, birding asks instead that you stop and be quiet. In the process, you might find that you are examining the world in a much more detailed way—as you may never have before.
This year—2013—marks the 114th Christmas Bird Count, an annual event that takes place not only on the Cape, but across the country. Run by the National Audubon Society, it is considered the oldest citizen science project in existence. Every year, from December 14 through January 5, birders around North and South America organize groups and count circles, stay out all day, and literally count the number of species and individual birds they either see or hear. The event is open to anyone, no matter the experience or interest level—from the stay-at-home birders who stick to their backyards and bird feeders, to the devoted, competitive birders who participate in as many counts as their sleep patterns will allow (birding usually involves a very early morning).
With more than 100 years of bird population data, the Christmas Bird Count helps provide a long-term assessment of the status of bird populations. Changing numbers in a bird count can be the first warning sign to tip conservationists of a particular species’ decline. Researchers use bird count data to develop watch lists and track how bird behavior and patterns change over time.
There are several local counts that take place during the two-week window and they are organized geographically: Buzzards Bay, Cape Cod, Mid-Cape, Truro, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Plymouth. On any given count, that day’s coverage area is split into count circles, with each circle consisting of a 15-mile radius. The circles are split up with each participating team taking a part of the circle.
The day culminates with the tally, when all of the counters return to an agreed upon location—usually someone’s home—to compile figures, compare notes, drink beer, eat comfort food, and discover who earned bragging rights for the year by having seen the most unusual or surprising birds. I found the birders I met during the 2012 count to be good spirited and friendly; they were quick to introduce and welcome the newcomer, me, while at the same time intense and dedicated with a healthy competitive streak—and they make a fine pot of homemade chili!
For my first birding experience, I was particularly lucky in my choice of guide—Marshall Iliff. A Boston-based birder who currently works for Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology, Marshall runs their eBird program, a powerful Web-based tool that allows any registered member to record, track, and share their bird sightings. Iliff, like many of the birders I met, first got involved in the hobby when he was a kid. He places himself firmly in the “obsessive” category of birders—having made it both his career and his passion. His connection to the Cape is through birding, as he visits frequently throughout the year to bird with close friend Jeremiah Trimble and his father, Peter Trimble (who together run the Buzzards Bay count).
I was lucky to choose Marshall, as he was both gracious in letting me tag along and ask endless questions, and helpful in pointing out species and individual birds I would have never identified otherwise. I suppose going out birding with Marshall was akin to sitting for one’s first painting lesson with John Singer Sargent—the beginner was both awed and humbled by the master’s skill.
And “skill” is indeed the appropriate term. Birding is not just about grabbing a pair of binoculars and walking out the door, although it can be as simple as that (I would also recommend warm socks and comfortable shoes). The process is like learning a foreign language. At first, a foreign tongue sounds completely incomprehensible and the uninitiated cannot even distinguish where one word ends and another begins.
However, once sounds, vocabulary, and structure are learned and familiar, then the chaos begins to organize itself. So, too, with birding. You must learn the distinguishing features of the different species so that in a split second—which is usually all you get—you can sort out the chaos and identify what you see or hear. As a complete newbie, I was overwhelmed with what I saw and heard, but I was able to pick out the ones that I recognized. Learning a new bird species is like learning a new word.
Each birder has different tools at his or her disposal depending on their skill. While quality binoculars and scopes certainly help, it is ultimately the knowledge of the birds’ biology, their calls, and their identifying features, that allows the birder to be successful. Recent technology such as a smartphone is a helpful addition to identify, track sightings, play recordings of birdcalls, and readily snap photos. The most respected skill is still the most traditional—the ability to mimic bird calls with your own voice.
The Christmas Bird Count outing begins with owling, which can only occur before the sun comes up—so already this is a way to experience Cape Cod as you may not usually. The Cape in the morning is a precious and hopeful time, and I felt as though I was in on some secret—getting to be up and out when others were asleep in their beds. As a small group of four, we hunted around Falmouth, stopping in three different known habitats to try to find the more common Eastern Screech Owl or, if we were lucky, a Northern Saw-whet Owl.
In these first moments of birding, as I listened in on discussions of possible hot spots within our circle, compared to recent sightings, and hypotheses about feeding habits, I realized how much birding has in common with other nature sports like hunting and fishing. As Marshall described, “we’re all the same ilk—it’s the intellectual challenge that really drives us.” It is all about the challenge of figuring out where the birds are going to be and then going out to find them and see if you are right.
Once it was light, we headed to South Cape Beach in Mashpee—a virtual gold mine for birding in its breadth of habitat as you can see shore and ocean birds as well as those that inhabit brush, marshes, and forested areas. As I stared through Marshall’s scope at the thousands of birds drifting on the water off shore, my first reaction was shock and surprise. I had never noticed how many birds there were in the water—and in winter! Of course, anyone who has any knowledge of local birding knows there are actually more birds in Cape waters this time of year, as many northern species come south for the winter. There are Common Eiders, Buffleheads, Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, and Goldeneyes, to name a few. I felt I had discovered a whole new world. Had they always been here?
As we walked and the morning moved on, we passed into the scrub pines and shrubs along the trails. Marshall tracked species just by their call, some just by their silhouette in the sky. I proudly noted the regulars I knew: Chickadees, Sparrows, and Goldfinches. The highlight was a Northern Shrike that Marshall pointed out to me. These rare, predatory, and quite diminutive birds are unique in their tendency to impale their prey—often small rodents—on sharp sticks or fences.
We left the beach at 9 a.m. We had been going for five hours and it was time for coffee and for Marshall and I to part ways. He had more serious birding to do and I was exhausted but exhilarated at the excitement of learning something new. I rushed home and pored over my bird book. The next day, I dragged my husband back to South Cape Beach where the change in weather, time, and day meant that the world was new again and the water was full of an entirely different treasure trove of birds. We took our time and walked slowly.
For more information on Cape birding and the Christmas Bird Count, visit the Cape Cod Bird Club (www.capecodbirdclub.org), massbird.org, or the National Audubon Society—birds.audubon.org.