I finally did the Christmas bird count! I've been meaning to do it for years. True, I always imagined I would do the count somewhere in New England, over the course of many hours, and that the count we did would actually contribute to the annual census (more on all of this in a moment) but I did go out and do it.
Now that I live in Flatbush/Ditmas Park I subscribe to RSS feed of the Ditmas Park Blog, and one day last week I saw that the annual winter bird census was taking place this weekend. I marked it in my calendar and invited friends, who all declined, but I kept the time sacred.
The day was gorgeous -- high 40s, clear sky, gentle sun. I walked over to the Audubon Center in Prospect Park, where we were to start. I have gone on one of the regular bird walks over there before, which I found to be quaint, pleasant, and a little alarming. Quaint because the person who led the trip didn't have capacity to understand that someone showing up for the first time wouldn't necessarily be a neophyte. Pleasant because it IS completely pleasant to walk around and look at birds, even if you are in a park where your binocs catch as many pieces of garbage on the ground as birds. And alarming because during part of that walk we went to a feeder. A feeder in the park on a bird watch. I don't think they could have given me more fodder for my deep-held belief that Prospect Park isn't actually nature; it's more like a very small nature preserve.
Still, I have always wanted to do the Christmas bird count, and I had to work both Saturday and Sunday this weekend, and so I wasn't going to be going out anywhere more beautiful to do it, so I walked over to the Audubon Center. Only to find out that all we were doing was to go on the exact same walk I went on that other time—the same route, some of the same people (I liked that part), the same bird feeder. And not only that, but that our count would likely not count. We were assigned to a very specific part of the park, but someone else was assigned to the whole park. (What?) And so unless we found a bird or a group of birds that nobody else found, it would be assumed that the birds we would see would have already been counted by some other group. So basically I was going on the same bird walk I'd been on before.
Not that there's anything wrong with going on the same bird walk I went on before. One of the lovely things about bird watching is revisiting the same animal, or revisiting the same place in a different time of year and seeing who is there now. It's lovely to develop a deep sense of place. The problem is, I don't fundamentally respect the place. Not with a bird feeder in the middle of it. Now I'm all for backyard bird feeders. But this isn't a backyard. It's a park. Or, I'm all for a bird feeder in the middle of a park, but not to take an Audubon nature walk past it as the centerpiece of the walk. (Someone more knowledgable about urban parks, Audubon, and/or birding please enlighten me if there's something I'm missing here.)
Nonetheless, I still enjoyed being outside, slowing down, communing with some of my old favorite birds (I adore the tufted titmouse) and meeting a new one (the pine siskin—I recognized it as a finch, but I had never separated it out from other finches before.) I endured repeated comments by the woman who assumed I knew nothing about birds or birding, because she had never seen me at her backyard Park bird feeder before. "This is a great walk for a beginning birder. I started here." "Did you see the finchy? See the little finchy?" "Do you know how to tell the difference between a male and a female cardinal?" It took a lot of patience and humility, actually, to respond appropriate to her. I didn't feel like I needed to tell her I'd been watching birds my whole life, but I also didn't want her to keep annoying me. I finally just found ways to place myself where she wasn't—and to bird and let bird.
As we went along, people dropped off, and what started out as a group of 30 or so whittled down by the end to a group of 6. We walked along an area where I remembered spotting a golden crowned kinglet on my first of these walks. (The group leader told me it was the first of the season.) Right around the same spot, I spotted something in the reeds. A very small dark bird that I couldn't identify. When the rest of the group came to where I was, I described it, and the leader suggested it might be a winter wren. We never saw it again, and in fact one of the characteristics of the wren is that it doesn't stay in one place for long. So maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't. But once again, after feeling weird about the non-nature aspect of a nature walk in the park, and after wandering off by myself to a place that felt more lovely, I spotted something, and sat with it, and slowly let the rest of the world fade away, and became more present in time and space.
Here's a list of the birds we counted. I didn't get all the numbers—just the species.
Cardinals - male and female
Yellow bellied sapsucker - male
White breasted nuthatch - male
Red tail hawks
White throat finches
House finches (my mom taught me to ID the male because it looks like it's been dipped in raspberry juice)
A raccoon way up high in a tree, sleeping over the crook of 2 branches
Downy woodpecker - female
Red breasted nuthatch - male (one of only two in the park right now)
And maybe, but not officially, a winter wren.