This morning, I was standing at my kitchen counter whisking an egg for breakfast when, suddenly, I felt my skin prickle.
I was being watched.
I turned toward the kitchen window and saw two beady eyes fixated on my every move; they belonged to a sweet female finch that was perched atop our bird feeder.
I halted my breakfast preparations (how could I cook an egg while a bird watched me, for heaven’s sake?) and cautiously approached the window, coming eye-to-eye with the bird.
Even then, the finch didn’t flinch.
I watched her for a good half hour, awed by her serenity and mystified her uncanny interest in watching me.
So, why me? Was she trying to prevent me from consuming eggs this morning by doing some sort of cosmic intervention?
Was she one of the birds that I’d observed in their area habitats a few weeks ago when I’d participated in the Christmas Bird Count? Maybe she was, and now she’s turning the tables by having me experience what it feels like to be watched in my own habitat.
Guess what, little finch?
It feels magical.
I get it now, this birdwatching activity. And I’m grateful that there’s an annual community event that is geared toward bird-lovers like me: the Christmas Bird Count.
Considered the longest-running citizen science survey, this event is orchestrated through the National Audubon Society and takes place from December 14 through January 5 each year.
Over 72,000 volunteers in the Western Hemisphere participate in this count, providing data for scientists to track the bird population. On one Saturday during this time, the Ozark Gateway Audubon Society Chapter organizes an event for community members who want to participate in the count, which is helpful for novice birders like me.
I participated in this event a few years ago, and I honestly didn’t have a clue about what to expect on that chilly December morning. I’d envisioned bundling up in multiple layers of bulky clothing, hiking to a field, and then standing still and silent for several hours while counting each bird I spotted.
I guess I thought I’d be like a scarecrow for a day.
But the event was nothing like that (except for the part about warm clothes). Bird count participants met at Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center at 8:00 a.m. and everyone was divided everyone into groups, with each group covering a different geographical region.
While we were waiting for our assignments, I had the chance to talk to several people. For some of them, participating in the Christmas Bird Count was a family tradition, a way to spend quality time together while enjoying nature. Other people just come to the center to pick up the paperwork and then return to their homes to do the counting there. Then there’s Larry Herbert, an enthusiastic birder who’s been participating in the Christmas Bird Count for about 50 years, organizing the event locally for most of those years. That’s dedication!
My group leader was Chris Pistole, who was Education Director for the nature center when it was affiliated with the Audubon Society. Chris is a fantastic educator and definitely knows his birds! And, no, we didn’t have to brave the elements and stand in a field counting the birds that landed on our limbs. We enjoyed the warmth inside Chris’ heated car as he drove us to our assigned territory.
Chris occasionally pulled the car to the side of the road so we could sit quietly (all nice and snug), looking and listening for any birds. Any that we counted were recorded in the paperwork that we would turn in later at the center.
For people who aren’t birders, this might sounds boring, and I would have thought the same thing years ago. But participating in the bird count made me feel like I was on a scavenger hunt (well, I guess I kind of was). I’d squeal excitedly whenever I was able to identify a bird by its distinct call or flight pattern, liked I’d uncovered a clue.
Chris taught me a lot about birds in the few hours I spent with him. I learned that robins don’t leave our region during the winter; they only leave our backyards and gather together in the woods near a water source and return to our yards when the weather gets warmer. I learned that goldfinches change color in the winter, and I also learned how to tell the difference between a Red-headed Woodpecker and a Red-bellied Woodpecker (both of them have a degree of red markings on their head).
As far as the birds we counted, the majority of them were Northern Cardinals and European Starlings, but we saw many others, including this Northern Mockingbird in a field.
On our way back to the center, we came across this Red-shouldered Hawk in pursuit of a meal.
We watched as it stalked a mouse, grabbed it from the field, then flew with it to a nearby tree (which happened to be right above Chris’ car, so I had a close-up view of it tearing into its meal – yum).
All of the groups met back at the center at noon to turn in their count paperwork, and a potluck lunch was provided by the Ozark Gateway Audubon Society Chapter.
There is also a Kids’ Christmas Bird Count event held in early January for little birders-to-be. Held at Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center, this event is organized by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
What a great idea to introduce this hobby to people while they’re young, so that they can experience, early on, the magical feeling of connecting with nature.
I dedicate this post to Chloe, my new outdoor friend. She returned to the feeder later today and I snapped this photo. Isn’t she heavenly?
For more information on the Christmas Bird Count and other nature programs, stop by Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center at 201 West Riviera Drive, or visit its website by clicking here.
To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.
*This post was updated on 12/11/19.