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On Christmas Bird Counts and seniority

December 24, 2010
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I’ve written a fair bit on my teenage years and the birding I was able to do then, high quality stuff by virtue of being the token young birder in a club that fulfilled the unfortunately accurate stereotype of being weighted significantly towards people beyond the age of 40.  It’s a situation to which many young birders can probably relate, the excitement that envelops a field trip or meeting when a young birder cares enough to show up.  One I see from the other side now as leader in my local club’s Young Naturalist group.  For me however, this was illustrated perhaps most effectively by my first Christmas Bird Count, when my dad and I were assigned to what was often considered to be the best spot in the entire Springfield, Missouri, count circle, the celebrated section 4.

Section 4 contained Fellow’s Lake, the largest and deepest lake in the count circle.  It also contained a smaller wetland in Valley Water Mill, and hundreds of acres of Missouri cattle pasture, farms ponds, and small wooded neighborhoods.  It was, as CBC sections go, about as good as anyone could ever expect and over the years, as the group of us assigned this area – typically the same 4 to 6 of us – stuck together over the years we figured out a way to tackle the area that was so ingrained we barely needed to discuss after a while, we all knew where we needed to be and when.  Even though I’ve relocated, my dad still covers the same well-worn route with the same core group of people more than 15 years later.   We had made it ours, and no one would even think to take that area from us.

My CBC experiences are very different now.  Because my schedule over the period has been so inconsistent, I’ve not been able to participate as regularly as I had as a younger person, and so long as I have a very young child that’s not likely to change.  Even counts that I’ve done for multiple years, I’ve not done the same area more than once.  For the Raleigh count, which I’ve done four times now, I’ve been in four different area with four different groups.  No consistency at all, and my various regional Spring and Fall Counts – which use the same count circles and divisions – are the same story.  Here one year and somewhere else the next.

And this year, the first I’m doing my local Chapel Hill CBC, I’m in the far reaches of the circle, an area of gamelands and subdivisions with few obvious birdy spots (though no doubt I’ll be surprised).  I’m nothing if not a Bird Count mercenary, a hired gun stuck on the fringes to fill in gaps in coverage.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with this, but it’s a different feel, and leaves little opportunity to get comfortable in any given area.

Not that there’s always a lot to see anyway.  After all, as with so many established count circles, the areas known to have the best birds are covered by the same people every year.  And why not?  They’ve certainly earned that right.  Seniority among birders is respected in much the same way the old area I used to cover in Missouri.  And the only way to get on those territories is to bird with them, which I’d never begrudge any birder who wants a great CBC experience.  And for the rest of us, there’s always the opportunity to turn up some excellent birds from an unexpected location

For me though, I’ll accept my hired bin approach.  If I had my choice between birding with a group at an established location and taking the opportunity to complete a part of the circle that would otherwise go uncovered, I’d take the second anyway.  The chance to find something unexpected at an unexpected place is one of the things I like the most about birding anyway, it stands to reason that kind of attitude could even be applied to something as regimented at a Christmas Bird Count (the same goes for Spring and Fall counts too).

I suppose this is a completely roundabout way of saying that I’ve got a couple Durham County sections for Sunday’s Chapel Hill CBC and if there are any local birders looking for something to do, I’d wouldn’t mind some help.  If not, well, I’ll just have to turn up all those Red Crossbills and Saw-whet Owls myself.

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