I had no idea what to expect from my first Christmas Bird Count this weekend. I was nervous about meeting a group of unknown, yet likely much more experienced birders for the first time, and slightly terrified that under pressure to impress strangers, the only bird I’d be able to identify would be a robin. I was relieved to wake up to rain and assured my husband that I’d only be out for an hour, at most.
I met my cohort for the Toronto Ornithological Club’s 88th Christmas Bird Count in the pouring rain at Earl Bales Park. Binoculars in hand, the seven of us embarked on a thorough an examination of our designated area. Though the group members all knew one another, they welcomed me and the leader stressed the democratic aspect of the count and reminded me that my input was as valuable as the most skilled birder’s.
And off we went. We began to count. Everything mattered. Total numbers of birds, total numbers of species, numbers within species. After assuring me that this was a noncompetitive event, our leader didn’t hesitate to add that our goal was to beat the team just north of us.
Uninhibited, I began to point out whatever movement I detected in tops of trees or branches, which led to our first goldfinch sightings of the day. Nobody cared that I misidentified almost everything I saw (at first); members of our cohort would come to my rescue, identify the bird correctly and point out its distinguishing features or behavioral tics. To my great shock, my robin sighting produced genuine and substantial enthusiasm.
The rain alternated between torrential bursts and an unrelenting drizzle, with occasional dry spells thrown in to deceive us. Members of our group with numerous Christmas Bird Counts under their belts arrived clad in Gore-Tex from head to toe. I made the grave mistake of wearing layers of Icelandic wool under a knee-length down parka, which quickly proved to be non-waterproof, and the entire ensemble began to smell like a sweaty, fatigued sheep, but nobody said a word.
Our findings were modest, but I learned to distinguish the red-breasted nuthatch from the chickadee, reacquainted myself with the chip of the dark-eyed junco and caught a glimpse of its exquisite white outer tail feathers in flight. Our group worked harder than I ever thought possible to find a mourning dove and a rock pigeon. I delighted in watching male cardinals brand the grey sky with their vibrant red feathers, and couldn’t stop marvelling at nuthatches calmly strolling down tree trunks. Someone point out two hairy woodpeckers engaged in an intense dispute. By the volume of their fierce yelping, I think it could have been a prelude to a duel. The bird of the day, which I heard but couldn’t make out clearly, was a majestic (and rare!) red crossbill. Over lunch, Sibley’s guide reminded us that the red crossbill is “uncommon and very irregular” and we relished in the singularity of our find, most of us (not so) secretly hoping it would be deemed prize-worthy by Christmas Bird Count authorities.
At 2:30 pm, I bid farewell to my fellow birders and drove home exhausted, 17 species and seven hours later than anticipated, thoroughly soaked and thrilled with my day.
Julia Zarankin is a writer, editor, and former professor of Russian literature and culture at the University of Missouri. She's a long-time contributor to ON Nature magazine and our blog.