BIRDS GATHER IN a small copse of dead cottonwoods on the edge of a frozen cattail slough. Juncos pick at the leafy ground, cedar waxwings feed on berries in a scraggly bush, and a downy woodpecker drums a dead limb. A hundred yards away, cars whip past on I-35. In the dawn cold, I write down the bird names and numbers.
Two weeks earlier a call to Fred Waltz at the St. Paul Audubon Society had resulted in assignment to Arden Hills for the annual Christmas Bird Count. An info packet had soon followed in the mail, and then a phone call from John Hershey, group leader for Territory Number Seven. I was his sole subordinate. We'd agreed to count solo in the morning and team up for the afternoon.
From Lake Johanna we set off on foot, soon picking up railroad tracks that cut across our territory. "I have a dim memory of my mom saying, 'Let's go,'" John recalls, "and we went out birding, on Long Island, where I grew up. It was okay, but you know, no big deal. But near the end of grad school, in the late '70s, I was in a bookstore and saw a guidebook, and I bought it, and that hooked me. My first time out was at a refuge on the New Jersey shore, and I saw a spotted redshank, a European bird blown over in a storm. Some old man had a scope set up and let me have a look. He said, 'Son, you'll never see one of them again, not on this continent.'"
John is tall and fit, with a salt and pepper beard, and he is the women's basketball coach at Macalester. He doesn't use his binoculars much, a sign of confidence. He and his wife and two sons go on birding weekends, and he's participated in banding a couple times. "To hold a scarlet tanager in your hand," he says, "now that's something." Eventually we abandon the railroad tracks and meander the suburban creases of woods and slough. On a closed road to a county compost site we scare up a great horned owl, a large brown pillow of a bird.
The Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a major event in the birding year, and has been since 1900, when 28 devoted birders took the first census. They counted to protest a festive holiday tradition called the "side hunt," in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds in a single day. While the side hunt has disappeared, the CBC has expanded to include 45,000 people working on 1,700 separate counts, mostly in North America. Counts must take place within a specified time period, roughly the last two weeks of the year. Most counts are conducted within a circle 15 miles in diameter, an area divided up into territories. The St. Paul count area is centered in Roseville and includes 27 territories.
Soon after the owl sighting the dark comes down and John and I end our count. Before we part John promises to send complimentary passes to a game. He has other plans for the evening, but I drive to a West St. Paul apartment for the Final Tally Potluck.
In the living room full of eating and talking people only one unoccupied chair remains. A small elderly woman assures me it's available, and introduces herself as Jean. She asks, without prelude, "What was the most surprising bird you saw?" A man with a thin gray mustache and no other hair leans across Jean and asks, "How long have you been birding?" On my other side a middle-aged man listens to the answer, then sticks his hand just under my chin and we shake. "Sam Campbell," he announces. "What was your territory?"
After all are done eating, Fred Waltz, the count compiler, takes the floor to tally the number of species sighted. As he reads through the list, we're supposed to speak up and say "yes" if we saw the bird. When I give the lone "yes" to rusty blackbird, there's a collective catching of breath and all eyes turn to me. One woman asks intently, "Where?" Rare birds require long discussions. A peregrine pair has been nesting under the Ford Street bridge and a shared joy ripples across the room at the news they're still there.
During the reading of the species, three star birders shake out. Kiki Sonnen was out before dawn seeking owls, and she answers "yes" to bird after bird. Julian Sellars, according to his counting partner, Bob, displayed an uncanny ability to conjure up a particular bird almost at will. "Many of you may remember that snail kite down in Florida," Bob says, then recounts a new story for the archives: the belted kingfisher. Tom Bell, a dead ringer for John Huston, with silver beard and gravelly voice, rifts on the kingfisher, describing his own sighting near the Pig's Eye sewage treatment plant on the Mississippi. But when Fred reads "red-bellied woodpecker," Tom shakes his head and says, "I couldn't find one to save my soul."
The reading of the list, interrupted by stories and banter, takes about an hour. Afterward Fred's wife Dorothy adds a few birds--"Bob Holtz called in an eastern phoebe"--while Fred quickly tallies the species. "Okay, here it is then," he says and the room falls quiet. "Fifty-one this year...which is three more than last year." Everyone contemplates that figure for a moment, and then Julian calls across the room to Kiki, "How many for you?" She answers 26. "Twenty-five," he says, putting his hand on his chest. "I thought I might catch you this year." Tom pitches in with 21. My total, 18. Before we break the living-room circle and gather up our leftover food, Tom announces that there's another count next Saturday, down in Hastings. "Just meet at the Perkins by 8:00," he says, and all around the room heads nod.