An Audubon Christmas Bird Count is a good way to find out if you have what it takes to be a birder. With the cold wind in your teeth you peer through the fog on your glasses and the tears in your eyes to count crows and any other hapless birdlife hunkered down and fluffed out on a chilly morning. Birding is a tough sport. Ask a bird.
I’m not much on toughness but shoved myself out of a warm bed anyway, packed a Cliff Bar and a banana and poured a travel mug of coffee for the day’s count. My part of the count circle included some lonesome backroads and dirt roads. Some were passable, most weren’t. There’s been snow lately, and wet icy rutted red dirt turned me back again and again. Sometimes I’d get out and walk when the road petered out. I was gloomy from the git-go. I had my attitude on backwards. Fortunately, birds are mood-lifters for the cranky.
Really, it’s hard to be cranky when a yellow-bellied sapsucker is chowing down on cedar berries and squeaking every few seconds with sapsucker pleasure. Or when a herd of winter-coated whitetails look back at you, ready to run but ready to stay put, too (in the end they stayed), or when thousands of American robins fill every tree for a mile, singing in the frosty air with red breasts proudly thrust forth- that is sublime.
I forgot the cold fingers for a minute as a brown creeper crept under a branch and nearly cried when I drove into a casino parking lot to watch Northern shovelers paddling around the tiny ice-free center of a sewage lagoon. Driving on a fast two-lane highway and catching a familiar shape out of the corner of my eye, I hit the brakes and drove 100 feet in reverse to snag a greater roadrunner for the count list. There were cedar waxwings and Harris’ sparrows and flickers and lots and lots of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, all of them squeaking happily. 49 species for me personally and 108 for the Norman count (as of today’s tally with almost everyone reporting). And at the end of the day, I had my attitude on forward and my mood uplifted nicely, yes indeed.
Trumpeter swans were reported on the count (by other counters) at a small artificial lake in a housing addition in Norman. The last time I saw trumpeter swans, they were on their nests in the muskeg of Alaska, heads high and alert on those long white necks, emblems of true rugged wilderness. Today I grabbed my scope and sketchbook and drew all eight of the majestic birds, wild as anything that ever lived, dunking their heads and long necks into the cold ignoble water of a housing tract pond, going bottoms up and paddling the air with their shiny black feet. Sublime and ridiculous at once, they cheered me up more than I can ever say.