Keeping count has never been my strong point. I start and then lose track and have to start again.
This is a particular problem when it comes to birds.
Every time I can go out to Scherman Hoffman with my binoculars and see or hear birds, it’s a gift. If I find a bird I’ve never seen or heard before, it’s even better -- a blessing.
But if I have to count each one I see, it becomes a chore.
That is why I am usually not one for the Christmas Bird Count.
I’m not against the count. It has been around a long time and is worthy of your time and effort whether you are a hard-core birder or just like to walk in the woods with others.
Until this year, the count was a major way for the National Audubon Society to raise money through what it charged participants. (New Jersey Audubon, of which Scherman Hoffman is part, is a separate organization and not part of the national society.)
This year the count, which takes place in many locations across the country and runs into January, is free, although donations are appreciated. Was this in reaction to our troubled economic times or just a need for more citizen scientists to provide data?
Whatever the reason, you still have time to join a group, such as the one that covers Somerset County, N.J., where Scherman Hoffman is located.
The reason for the annual count is not that different from the reason Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania was created - to get people to stop hunting birds and start counting them as a way of keeping them alive.
Hawk Mountain was the peak where sport hunters would shoot raptors and whatever else they found as the birds followed the thermals south along the ridges during their southbound migration each fall.
In the case of the Christmas Count, Audubon official Frank Chapman wanted to stop the annual “side hunts” where teams would see how many birds they could kill each Christmas. He decided to hold a census instead, just around the time the conservation movement started to take off.
There were 27 birders in 25 locations when the count started in 1900. Both numbers have skyrocketed in the 112 years since then. Those first counters found 18,500 individual birds making up 89 species across the country. In 2008, the last year for which Audubon has data, there were 2,113 counts and nearly 60,000 participants.
That’s a lot of people counting birds.
I can understand why people would want to get out there and look for birds. Birds fascinate us. There are so many and they all look so different. On these counts you get together with like-minded people for a higher purpose. Plus it can be fun. One friend in Cape May goes in a group that might include New Jersey Audubon’s own Pete Dunne or Richard Crossley of the Crossley Guide. These are pros.
There are other counts during the year. Dunne helped create the World Series of Birding held every May to highlight the wonder of migrating birds, originally in Cape May, then throughout New Jersey. The money raised goes toward conservation efforts. Other states have similar competitions.
Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology works with the national Audubon and other partners to hold an annual Great Backyard Bird Count every Presidents Day weekend in February. (There are likely many more counts I don‘t know.)
I have done the Cornell count for many years for several reasons, mainly because this bird likes to fly alone.
I can do this count watching my feeders from the warmth of my home if I choose rather than travel with others in a predetermined “circle.” I can go where I want and at my own pace, as long as I keep a proper record of where I am. All the tools I need are online and there has never been a fee to participate.
As usual, my problem is with the counting.
I’m sure it’s the same with the Christmas Bird Count. How can you be sure the chickadee coming to the feeder now is not the one that just visited a minute ago?
After a while I stop seeing the birds and start seeing ticks on a sheet of paper. One titmouse, two-three-four titmouse. And is that a cardinal over there? How many? Is something up in the tree?
As I said earlier, It gets to be work after a while.
That is not why I come to Scherman Hoffman. I come to look and maybe find something that will halt me in my tracks in wonder.
But for those who like to go in a flock to see every bird on Earth and record how many there are -- you know who you are -- the venerable Christmas Bird Count should be your Olympics. Go, sign up and have fun.
I won’t be out there.
Count on it.
By Margo D. Beller