Gifts from the Christmas bird count

  • Phil Brown and Hillary Seiner look for species at the annual Christmas Bird Count, put on by the National Audubon. PHOTO BY SUSIE SPIKOL

Published: 12/26/2019 1:29:52 PM

For the past 25 years, this column has been filled with Francie von Merten’s observations of the Monadnock region’s natural world. Her detailed observations and sheer joy of living in this place filled with so much wildlife made this paper practically buzz. Francie’s gaze was most often drawn to the birds of this place, their soft feathered bodies, ethereal songs and struggles and triumphs in the world. She gave us all the gift of noticing what many of us might just walk by on any given day.

It was Francie’s love of birds that motivated me to head out on this past cold and rainy Saturday morning to join in my first ever Christmas Bird Count. I’m not a birder and in fact bird watching intimidates me. The field is filled with experts who can identify a bird by the very first breath of a whistle or chirp. They see the birds buried in thickets and have already identified them by the time I’ve gotten my binoculars to my eyes and focused. And I am impatient. I like to move when I’m outside, following tracks or searching out fresh scat piles and bear bites. Birding is slow, almost meditative. But this year, I’m trying to grow my birding muscle to be a bit more Francie-like.

With the promise of adventure, tasty little muffins and a chance to help contribute valuable data to a national project, I met my Christmas Bird Count (CBC) team in the dark hours before dawn in Hancock, ready to go, dressed in all the slippery rain gear I owned.

Captained by the Harris Center’s Pack Monadnock’s Raptor Observatory’s Site Coordinator and NH Audubon Property’s Manager, Phil Brown and Peterborough resident, Hillary Seiner, a wildlife biologist, our team was a part of National Audubon’s 120th Christmas Bird Count. Our designated study area was a 15 mile circle in mostly Hancock, while nine other teams were out searching the greater Peterborough area. From Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 across the US, Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands, volunteers head out to survey for birds. Over 2,600 teams participated in last year’s count with a total of over 72,400 observers, making the CBC the largest and longest running community science bird project in the world, according to National Audubon which coordinates and sponsors it.

Started in 1900 by Frank Chapman, an ornithologist and a curator of collections for the American Museum of Natural History, the Christmas Bird Count was early a response to a New England Christmas tradition known as “the side hunt”, where whoever bagged the most birds won a prize. Chapman, along with other early conservationists grew concerned over declining bird populations due to over-hunting. As an alternative to the hunt, Chapman offered a new tradition – rather than hunting birds, people could count them instead. According to the National Audubon’s website (, the first count had 27 birders counting in 25 sites ranging in location from Toronto to California with most counts completed in the Northeast, including our own Keene.

We began our day in the dark, searching for owls. We drove along the icy back roads of Hancock. Phil, who has participated in over 100 Christmas Bird Counts in the past 11 years, described feeling like it was actually Christmas morning. He was filled with the excitement and anticipation of what birds might unwrap themselves from the woods and thickets to give us all a gift. The hard icy rain made listening for the hoots of owls impossible but Phil knew the places he had seen and heard owls in the past. Just before dawn, at the edge of a field, we got our first gift of the day. A barred owl lifted off from a snag and flew across the road.

The day would continue like this, almost like a treasure hunt, as we stopped in spot after spot to look and listen for the birds. I saw a tree, its bare branches hung with 50 cedar waxwings, their olive green feathers and whispery chips lighting up the cold rainy day, a scruffy patch of new forest at the end of a housing development brimming with flighty chickadees, juncos, and titmice, and a grassy meadow looking like spring covered with more than 70 robins.

Once we wandered for a while into a brambly woods in search of grouse. Picking our way through the barbs of blackberries and the thorns of multi-flora rose was the best gift of all. It was in this spot of woods that we came across bobcat, coyote, fox, deer, moose and bear sign, the skin and bones of mostly eaten opossum, and the thumping wing beats of a grouse flushed from its cover.

It was here in this scrap of scruffy woods that the magic of the Christmas Bird Count really took hold of me. It wasn’t just counting the birds and finding the rare gems like a hermit thrush on the edge of a roadside. Rather for me it was, what Francie often shared in this column – how all around us there is a wildness and if we just make time for noticing, the gifts from this untamed world can fill us with hope and inspire us to care for and think of not just ourselves but of all the living beings we share the world with.

Susie Spikol is Community Programs Director & Teacher-Naturalist at the Harris Center in Hancock.

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