Stop, Look, Listen

Which season is best for seeing birds? Some folks might think summer is best, because loons serenade us, and hummingbirds hover around our sugar water feeders. Some might prefer spring, when colorful migrants such as warblers, scarlet tanagers, and Baltimore orioles show off from conspicuous perches, filling the air with song. Autumn may not be quite as high on the list of best times to see birds, since by then the brightest feathers have been replaced by more subtle plumage, and many species have left to go south for the winter. Then there is winter, when days are short, dark, and cold, and few folks venture outside to look for birds. Those who do want to see birds might choose to attract chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches to feeders filled with seeds or suet, but by late December even folks who consider themselves birders tend to admit that it is not the best time of year to look for birds. They might be right if it were not for the annual Christmas Bird Count.

Every year at the end of December, just when the temperature drops and chill winds sweep down out of the mountains, more than twenty intrepid local birders brave the elements to count birds for the Sweden Maine Christmas Bird Count. Most do the Count outdoors, but folks who live within the 15-mile Count Circle have an opportunity to participate by staying home and counting birds at their feeders. Since 1972, local birders have been doing the Count, which is part of a huge international Christmas Bird Count that has been going on for 111 years. For those of us who participate, it has become an important winter tradition, providing a welcome break from the hectic pace of the holidays, and giving us an excuse to spend a day searching for birds.

Because it takes place at the end of December, the Count presents unique challenges. This year, we watched anxiously as a major storm, with heavy snowfall and high winds, swept up the east coast, forcing us to postpone the count by one day to Dec. 29. It was worth the wait, though, because the day of the Count was lovely, with sunny skies, temperatures in the 40s, and clear roads. We set out that morning with high hopes of seeing many birds, but as the day progressed we discovered there were relatively few species to be seen, and the numbers of birds seemed low.

At the end of the day, birders gathered to tally up the results: 39 mallards, 2 hooded mergansers, 1 ruffed grouse, 93 wild turkeys, 1 immature bald eagle, 1 red-tailed hawk, 37 pigeons, 95 mourning doves, 2 barred owls, 32 downy woodpeckers, 33 hairy woodpeckers, 7 pileated woodpeckers, 182 blue jays, 104 American crows, 8 common ravens, 481 black-capped chickadees, 27 tufted titmice, 15 red-breasted nuthatches, 44 white-breasted nuthatches, 4 brown creepers, 3 golden crowned kinglets, 100 European starlings, 11 Bohemian waxwings, 46 American tree sparrows, 5 dark-eyed juncos, 5 northern cardinals, 1 house finch, 15 crossbills (unknown if they were red or white-winged), 102 common redpolls, 88 American goldfinch, 13 house sparrows.

In addition to counting every bird seen on the day of the Count, we are permitted to report any additional species seen during Count Week, which covers three days before and three days after the Count Day. During Count Week we added American black duck, northern goshawk, American robin, and ruby-crowned kinglet.

Most years, the numbers and varieties of birds we see on the Christmas Bird Count surprise us. Many of the birds we see are year-round residents, but some species can be found here only in winter. Spring, summer, and autumn are excellent times to see birds, but when we take the time to stop, look, and listen, we find that winter can be one of the best seasons of the year for birding.

Jean Preis is a resident of Bridgton.

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