Nature Notes: Accounted for, Almost

The winter birds have been showing up in good numbers

    In the United States Army we used to leave the barracks at 6 a.m. and fall in, i.e., line up for the daily accounting. After everyone said, “Here,” the platoon sergeant would say, “All present and accounted for, sir” to the company commander, and we would fall out and go about our business of “hurrying up and waiting.” There was always someone missing from one or more of the platoons and that would cause some consternation among those wearing the “scrambled eggs,” the brass.

    Well, the winter birds have been showing up in good numbers, and while I can’t yet say, “All present and accounted for,” any day now their ranks will have become complete.

    Except for the winter-winter birds, the few that don’t show up until winter deepens, the present bird population, kinglets leading the way, is large and varied. Does it have something to do with the exquisite, Sandy-less autumn of 2013, I wonder? The one thing I am sure of is that the elections had nothing to do with it. Politicians and birds are not common bedfellows.

    It’s time to clean the squirrel-proof feeders (none of which are ever completely squirrel-proof) and put them up. Yes, there are a lot of fruit and seeds left over from the summer, but the birds have come to depend upon the handouts, particularly so the upscale ones like the black sunflower seeds, and we don’t want to disappoint them.

    It’s also time to get out the Peterson’s or the Sibley’s because the birds are in their winter colorations and, except for a few, won’t sparkle out their identities as they do in the spring and summer. By now call notes have replaced songs and if your ears aren’t waxed over like mine, you will be able to pick out the birds by their distinctive utterings. But be careful, there are some polished mimics out there and you could easily mistake a blue jay for a red-tailed hawk or an osprey.

    Some of the birders I hang out with are also techies. They not only pack binoculars and spotting scopes, they have sophisticated cellphones, iPods, and such that have pictures, calls, and songs of different birds, including some from Europe, Asia, and South and Central America. The in-the-field birders of today are as well prepared as Navy Seals. In the annual Christmas bird counts these days, I find myself being best at driving other birders around and tallying the birds they call out.

    The Christmas counts don’t start until mid-December, but already expert birders are staking out birds like chipping sparrows, orange-crowned warblers, dickcissels, and the like in hopes that they will stick around until count day. On lots of counts the prize birds are often found at feeders. By count day, the experts know every feeder in the territories they are assigned to.

    Every count has a compiler. All of the different counts in each state and country, now almost worldwide, are compiled on spreadsheets and sent to an Audubon Society office. The counts are posted online. Many are still annually published, so one can get a fairly accurate representation of the status of the global bird population while surfing the net.

    Because the rules have tightened for counting birds, your find might be challenged, in which case you might have to write a description of what you saw (and heard), or, better, submit a digital photograph to the “authorities.” This is serious stuff! Some birders, having had their birds removed from the list by an arbitrator, have been so nonplussed that they’ve given up an annual count that they have participated in for years and years on end.

    Lastly, the birds themselves are tolerant and forgiving. They know how to take care of themselves and abide by the birders tromping through their winter territories once a year. They will even cooperate at times, responding in kind to their species’ call notes or songs or moving to a perch so that one gets a better view.