The first time the word “birding” was used (in a work of William Shakespeare), it referred to the act of bird hunting. At some point during the following four hundred years it shed its old definition and acquired a new one: bring binoculars instead of a retriever.
I don’t know when this switch occurred, but I do know that a traditional Christmastime expedition made a congruent switch abruptly in the year 1900. For some reason, in my mind I picture a group of men, each resembling Daniel Boone with rifle in hand, in deep, Monty python-style conversation about why they can’t just look at the birds. But in reality, a gentleman and National Audubon society named Frank Chapman introduced the Christmas Bird Count to complement to the new conservation era. With time, the numbers of birds tallied by participants began to reveal nationwide trends in population growth and decline.
On the 110th iteration of Chapman’s count, I helped survey a circles 9 and 15 on the Northern Nassau count. The first snowstorm of the winter was scheduled to snuff the count by early afternoon, so we had a packed and eventful half day.
I met our team leader, Stella, and began the day listening for owls. A train, a dog, and a rooster replied to our screech owl rendition. Little did the rooster know it was 0400 hrs.
Our next site was also for screech owls, a little site off 25A called the Cushman Preserve. We pulled in and began calling. Before anything replied, a small sedan drove past us farther into the preserve. It wasn’t another team crossing into our territory; it was just a hint of the odd company we were to get that night. We left the site with one Eastern Screech-Owl in our bag. Erm, metaphorically.
At the time we suspected the lone car in the woods would take the title of “strangest vehicular encounter of the day.” Ha, well. On our way to our next stop, we spotted an interesting convergence of habitat around the road. Optimistically thinking hyphenated words such as “Long-eared” and “Saw-whet,” we pulled over and warmed up to call. Shortly, a roar from the left heralded the most ridiculous sight of the day. It was a monstrous black hummer, sporting too many flashing lights to be an ambulance but just enough to belong on the Las Vegas strip. It blasted by the two awed owlers and went down the road. As if the incessant tooting of our Saw-whet call challenged the glowing beast, it braked and began a three-point turn. Time to leave! But the creature quickly pulled right up to the car and cut off our escape. A man got out and asked if we were having car problems. After some suspicious misunderstanding of our stated intentions, he jumped back into the behemoth and drove away. We hadn’t called in any owls yet, but you may understand that the mood had been killed. Lesson learned? All good birders know to pull well off the road while birding to avoid accidents, but while you’re at it, pull into a quiet sidestreet.
(A quick scan of the internet came up with nothing close to what we encountered, but this is approximately the image that was burned onto my retinas for the next 20 minutes.)
Continuing on our way, we passed Las Vegas On Wheels saving another motorist, this time a taxi. A quick check of Stillwell Woods produced no owls. We picked up our third member, Simone, and returned to the last spot. A Great Horned Owl was calling just beyond the limits of our territory. I didn’t care; it was our second owl species and individual of the night. Great Horneds dotted our route, with 3 more between two stops on 25A, plus a pair of screeches at another.
At dawn we picked up our last member, Joe, and birded another roadside site. We picked up good numbers of sparrows, including some Fox, the most cardinals of any team in the circle (over 45 at that spot alone!) and good flyovers such as a pair of American Black Duck and the count’s only Common Merganser!
We visited a Boce’s property for feeder birds and a chance for roosting Great Horned Owls. Feeder birds abounded, with the highlights there being a Brown Creeper, many juncos, a pair of House Finches. A tour of the back of the property turned up nothing except a Red-bellied Woodpecker chuckling at our futile attempts. With restricted time, scrutinizing the canopies of the pine grove there for owls wasn’t really an option. But one owl happened to be nicely silhouetted in a deciduous tree in a break in the grove. It posed then flew off, followed by its mate. Total owls: 3 Eastern Screech and 6 Great Horneds. I didn’t know the county had such potential.
We hit a couple of little woodland preserves, where we rounded out the expected species, like Carolina Wren, and added more woodpeckers, jays, crows, titmice, chickadees, kinglets, and sparrows to their respective totals. Joe left us early, but fortunately didn’t miss much. We increased our goose count at a pond and then again at a school. After that, we hit the Old Westbury Gardens and added one new species for the day, a Hermit Thrush. Notable for numbers there were doves and robins. One last treat at the gardens was seeing a pair of Northern Mockingbirds face off at the edges of their territories.
Before turning in for the compilation, we bolstered goose and American Black Duck numbers and got our first Mallard of the day at a final pond. The first flakes were dusting the road.
The night produced an exquisite blizzard. The beautiful, swirling winter scene lulled me to sleep at home that night. When I awoke, it was already lunch time. The snow was now dazzlingly white. I wondered if the owls had still called in the night. Then I remembered how early I woke up for owling and fell back asleep until dinner.