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Willem Lange: An Annual Exercise in Assessing the Health of the Avian World

Errol, N.H.

I don’t know what the others in our party of six would call what we’re doing, but I’m trudging — trudging through about 8 inches of fresh snow down a nondescript unplowed road through open fields and scruffy third-growth northern forest. The sky is the color of oatmeal, the temperature a little above freezing. A cup of coffee would go pretty well just about now.

Between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 this year, volunteers from the National Audubon Society are conducting their annual Christmas bird count. The practice goes back 113 years, and provides fairly accurate data on population trends. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist working with the Audubon Society, then in its infancy, started the count to try to get a handle on the effects of industry, large-scale-farming and logging on bird populations.

It’s not just canaries in coal mines that provide critical information on the quality of our environment; it’s also the little winged critters you catch glimpses of flitting through the woods, flocking above the fields and keeping your bird feeder bobbing on busy days. Their numbers, particular in relation to those of other species, can vary widely; it’s important to ask and find the answers to questions about the reasons. The Christmas count is an excellent place to start.

The bird count replaces an older tradition that today seems a bit bloodthirsty — the annual Christmas “side hunt,” in which shotgunners killed as many birds as they could in a day, regardless of size, rarity, beauty or species.

A century ago at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, raptors were slaughtered by the thousands for sport where they concentrated along a migratory route. A wealthy New York woman bought the property, declared it a sanctuary and hired a warden — at the time the least popular man in the county. Today Hawk Mountain attracts flocks of birders in season, who count and name the hawks, eagles and vultures as they soar by, and where, according to the site manager, “you’ll find the greatest concentration in the world of two-thousand-dollar binoculars.”

There are lots of binoculars here, too; they’re standard equipment for birders, who have to distinguish the peculiar features of each of the tiny winged dots they seem to spot almost everywhere. At least one of the birders here lugs a tripod with a spotting scope, besides. They also use GPS to locate exactly the spots where they see significant birds.

The count is conducted within designated circles 15 miles in diameter. The group assigned to each circle — there are 21 in New Hampshire, 19 in Vermont — splits into teams of two or three and spreads out across its circle, checking off and counting the birds the squads see.

Looking over one shoulder, I could see “3 merganser, 1 hooded merg. male, 3 gray jay, 37 black-capped chickadees, 1 boreal, 29 redpolls, 3 ravens, 6 blue jays.” Yesterday, this gang surveyed a circle centered in Pittsburg; today, it’s spread out through the town of Errol. There’s a certain amount of competitiveness among the teams. They’ll never come close to the 250-plus species spotted one day in Texas in 2007 — and there’s always the bird count of Ecuador, which we visited last month, and which routinely outstrips any count in the States.

We met last evening at the Spa Restaurant in West Stewartstown (which, disappointingly, doesn’t have a spa). The teams were just returning from a day of counting in the circle centered on Pittsburg Village. Some had road-counted; others had slogged through knee-deep snow. As we waited for our suppers, the leader went through his master list and asked each team how many of each it had seen. The answers varied widely, from 0 to 239 (chickadees). Everybody was staying at a motel somewhere nearby. We broke up and agreed to meet in Errol at 7 the next morning. The falling snow and rain guaranteed an interesting early-morning drive.

I left my Colebrook motel at 5:35 a.m. and headed for the crucial part of the trip: Dixville Notch, which separates the Connecticut from the Androscoggin watershed. Near the top, as I chugged upward in four-wheel drive, a tractor-trailer that had come within yards of making it over was backing and slipping down the hill, probably to wait for a plow and sanding truck. By 7, I’d already had a microwaved egg-and-sausage sandwich and a pint or so of coffee, and stashed away some cashews and a Snickers for lunch. The birders stood around in the falling snow dining on cold leftover pizza from the night before. We were on the hunt by 7:30.

We spent the morning with a botany professor and a nature-tour operator. They were sharp! Driving along at perhaps 25 miles an hour, the professor sat in the back seat with her window open and somehow managed to spot and hear birds on her side of the car. “Bird!” she cried each time, and we stopped to identify and count. Often they were near or at bird feeders, which are prime spots for counting. Homeowners sometimes get a little tense when they see a group of strangers peering at their houses with binoculars, but usually are mollified when it’s explained.

In the afternoon we took off with this trio we’re with now. They’re a generation younger, and equipped with an electronic advantage: a digital player that broadcasts bird calls to the surrounding woods. It doesn’t seem to matter which calls they use; within a minute, chickadees begin to peer from the foliage to see what’s going on. They’re followed by nuthatches, blue jays and finally gray jays, who gravitate toward the sound of anything that might mean food. The one follower they’re about to lose is me. As much as bird calls are attracting me farther from the vehicle back at the road, there’s a thermos of coffee and condensed milk that’s calling even louder.

Willem Lange’s column normally appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached by email at willem.lange@comcast.net.