North AmericanBirds, from chickadees to sand-hill cranes, got their greatest going-over in 56years during the Christmas-New Year holidays. The country's most ardent birdwatchers, 8,000 strong—men and women, boys and girls, experts andneophytes—turned out in scientifically organized groups, setting records forbird watching which would have been considered impossible only a few yearsago.
This army ofbirders, marshaled into more than 575 groups, combed their favorite birdingspots in nearly all the states and Canadian provinces. Their aim was to see asmany as possible of the continent's several billion land birds and of itslegions of sea birds along the coasts. No single birder or group could hope tospot as many as 200 of the 650 or more recorded species. But each group was outto establish a record.
Bird watching hasbeen described as a hobby, a sport and a scientific pursuit. Whatever it is,the birders proved that it is big doings. This was no haphazard, leisurelyobservation of the feathered fauna of America, but the highly organized 56thannual Christmas Bird Count under the aegis of the National Audubon Society andin collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The rules were strictand the competition keen. Foul weather couldn't hold the watchers back. Taskforces were deployed in military style. Predawn blackness found them deep inthe woods hooting up owls. Noon saw them gnawing sandwiches while keeping aneye out for just one more species. And in the darkness, long after nightfall,they were still huddled over their lists, checking their totals and gloatingover rare finds they had made during the long day.
Top honors forthe entire nation went to the group at Cocoa on the east coast of Florida.There 42 watchers, under the leadership of Allan D. Cruickshank, ran up thephenomenal total of 184 species, the greatest number ever attained on aChristmas Bird Count. With this total, Florida nosed out its chief competitor,San Diego, Calif. Despite an all-out effort the California birders couldn't dobetter than 168 species, although they had won the previous year with 175.
Cruickshank,determined that Florida would shade California, planned his campaign long inadvance. The rules state that the count must be taken within one 24-hour periodfrom December 24 to January 2 in an area not greater than a circle with a15-mile diameter.
Several years agohe had carefully chosen the best bird-watching spots in his area. Then calipersand maps were put to use to make sure that the birdiest locations fell withinthe required circle. Dr. Cruickshank's region is rich in birds, and he selectedthe cream of it. For weeks before December 27, the day of the count,Cruickshank and a corps of trained local observers studied the chosen areathoroughly, noting the movements of such rare species as avocets, whitepelicans and scissor-tailed flycatchers so they would be able to spot them onthe big day.
Then he pickedhis watchers with care. Cruickshank had announced that he was out to win. Toincrease his chances he imported some of the country's best bird watchers,among them Roger Tory Peterson, whose paintings, commissioned by SI, appear onthe next four pages. Peterson flew down from his home at Old Lyme, Conn. Otherimports included Miss Farida Wiley, bird-trip leader of the American Museum ofNatural History; Dr. Joseph Howell, professor of zoology at the University ofTennessee; and Henry Bennett, supervisor of the Corkscrew Sanctuary. These,plus a contingent of sharp-eyed local birders, gave Cruickshank a phalanx whichhe divided into 9 task groups.
Cruickshank hadthe manpower, and he drove his groups unmercifully. Each party was assigned toa specific area and given a typewritten route annotated with locations ofnests, favorite feeding grounds and other pertinent data. At noon theyrendezvoused on a lonely back road, where they gobbled their lunches whilewatching unsuccessfully for the seldom-seen western kingbird and thescissor-tailed flycatcher. Then they plunged back into woods and marshes withorders to get certain species missed during the morning, and in some cases weresuccessful.
PETERSON'SPROWESS PAYS OFF
All told, theCocoa group spent over 500 man hours in the field, covered more than 1,000miles by foot and car, saw almost 78,000 birds in achieving their record count.Greater importance is attached to the number of species than to the number ofindividuals.
Their record wasmade despite murky weather. Before dawn their flashlights could barely pick outcanvas-backs and pintails through a dense fog. They missed for the most partthe spontaneous burst of sound and color as thousands of herons, ibis andpelicans poured out of their rookeries at the first peep of the sun.
But when the foglifted in midmorning they were gratified at the vast numbers and varieties ofducks spreading out over the tidal lagoons as far as their 60-power Balscopescould reach. Further inland, Henry Bennett stumbled upon 77 sand-hill cranes inone field, and in the pinewoods Peterson astonished even the other veterans byhis remarkable ability to identify little-known birds by their calls alone.Peterson doesn't count a bird thus found until he hears it twice. All those hecounted by ear were immediately confirmed by sight. But as a fellow watcher putit, "That Peterson never misses."
One rareaccidental visitor Peterson picked up by sound was the pine siskin.Incidentally, seasoned birders never call out the name of a bird until certainof its identification. There is no more serious breach of birding etiquettethan to be trigger-happy and name birds upon evidence which is too slight. Onewho does so is accorded looks heavy with meaning.
In late afternoona sudden cold drizzle blew in from the Atlantic, but it turned out to be ablessing. Two parties parked their cars facing the surf and trained theirbinoculars through rainswept windshields at a fleet of 26 fishing boats makingfor the harbor under a canopy of screaming sea birds. They spotted over 100gannets, a duck hawk and, perhaps the best catch of the day, three parasiticjaegers, swift hunters of the deep, offshore seas which snatch their food fromthe beaks and claws of other birds.
Cruickshank gotthe last bird of the day on a windswept tidal spit. While listening to Canadageese overhead he saw a lone silhouette streak down the sand spit.
"Greenheron!" shouted Cruickshank. And he added, by way of explanation: "It'seasy to spot in silhouette because it's the only crow-sized heron."
All day longCruickshank had been barking orders like a general dispatching crucialmissions—"Get the old squaw"—"Honk up some fat geese"—"Tiedown the avocets." And when his crew assembled at his home at Rock-ledgethat night, his eyes were still bright with the eagerness of the chase. Partyleaders phoned in their tallies and the totals mounted. By 10 p.m. it becameevident that their group had broken all Christmas Count records, andCruickshank's grin was wider than ever.
Tougherconditions were encountered by 53 members of the Delaware Valley OrnithologicalClub who invaded the historic birding grounds at Cape May, N.J. Here Dr. ErnestA. Choate, a Philadelphia high school principal, was the general in command ofthe bird-watching troops. Twenty-five birders arrived at Dr. Choate's summerhouse at Cape May Point wearing boots and binoculars and swathed in many layersof clothing. The others stayed at motels.
Even though amockingbird sat in a bush in front of the house when the first watchersarrived, Dr. Choate and his crew were dubious over their prospects because aprolonged cold spell had frozen the marshes and fresh water ponds. Sittingaround an iron stove, they received their assignments, and party leaders wentinto separate huddles with their aides. Their ages ranged from 12 to 73, butthey all had the same enthusiasm.
It was early whenthey crawled into bedding rolls spread on the floor. They had to be afield atdawn. They had a long tradition to uphold, for Cape May's first Christmas BirdCount was made in 1903.
The first manabroad was Edward Reimann, a chiropodist, who had the assignment to hoot upsome owls. He began by hooting up three great horned owls and by the end of theday the list included the barn, screech and short-eared owls. Some owls are nottoo hard to hoot up, answering even a poor imitation of their call. Another wayto interest an owl is to squeak like a mouse.
The odd soundsthat bird watchers make is one of the reasons why the tribe is oftenmisunderstood. Some carry automatic bird calls, but the more adept place theirlips against the backs of their hands and emit a series of squeaks and whistleswhich arouse bird curiosity.
By 6 a.m. thetask forces were deployed in the woods, along the beaches and out on windsweptrock jetties. Some checked feeding stations in towns while others cruised thefields for meadowlarks. When they reached the wide marshes of the Delaware theyfound they could walk out on the ice, a slippery trip which netted a killdeer,an American egret and various hawks.
One party waseasing into some woods to investigate an odd sound when a woman emerged from anearby house and advanced with the obvious intent of chasing them off herproperty.
"We'relooking for birds. We're making the Christmas Bird Count," Philip A.Livingston, a publisher, hurried to explain.
"Oh, Ithought you were hunters," the woman said. "You can look all you wantto."
Then she addedhelpfully, "Say, I've got a Peterson's guide up at the house."
This broughtsmiles, and they assured her they were well equipped with bird guides. Therewas a time when birders were looked upon with greater suspicion. During WorldWar II many a bird watcher was hauled in and given a hard time by thepolice.
The high point ofthe day at Cape May came when Dr. Dale R. Coman, professor of experimentalpathology at the University of Pennsylvania, spotted a European woodcock, arare visitor to these shores. Dr. Coman insisted that credit for adding thisrarity to the list should go to his seven-month-old setter pup, Huckleberry,which had flushed the bird.
That night allthe watchers assembled in a restaurant for dinner while the party leaders gavetheir reports to Dr. Choate. The results showed 144 species, seven less thanlast year's record for the Cape May Count. This disappointment was offset bythe European woodcock and the fact that they had also seen two barn swallows, awhite-crowned sparrow and a European black-headed gull, all good birds for theregion. Bird watchers are never crestfallen for long.
Across thecountry from Cape May, 60 bird watchers conducted the Portland, Ore. count onJanuary 2nd in a heavy rain, showing up in all sorts of foul-weather gear,including World War II gas capes. Despite the heavy going, they ran up a totalof 93 species and 67,123 individuals, both records for the area.
At one point EarlMarshall, a civil engineer who has been on every bird count there since 1926,and Mrs. Ruth Schreiber, who joined the Oregon Audubon Society only a year ago,were heading through the rain to check a small apple orchard when a womanopened the door of a nearby house and called, "May I help you?"
"We'recounting birds for the Audubon Society," she was told.
When told againthe woman grabbed her head with both hands and said, "You can havethem." Then she closed the door against the driving rain. Little did sheknow that Mr. Marshall and Mrs. Schreiber were on the point of spotting 15robins, 25 varied thrushes, an evening grosbeak, a spotted towhee and threesong sparrows. It was a good haul for any orchard.
SAN DIEGO BIDFAILS
But the best birdon that count was a water ouzel.
"Remarkable," said Mr. Marshall.
Farther down theWest Coast, Dr. James E. Crouch, professor of zoology at San Diego StateCollege, led the watchers on the San Diego count. Well aware of Dr.Cruickshank's vow to beat the San Diego crowd, they made a valiant effort torepeat or better their performance of last year when they rang up the highestcount in the nation, 175 species. But the best Dr. Crouch and his birders coulddo this year was 168 species and 38,038 individuals.
On the Texascoast, 26 observers got 163 species and 295,958 birds at the Laguna AtascosaNational Wildlife Refuge. This was nine species more, but 861,413 birds less,than they got last year. Luther Goldman, the refuge manager, said the smallernumber of individuals was due to the relative scarcity of pintail and redheadducks, species for which the refuge is famous. He said he believed many of theducks had migrated to Mexico and Central America because of lack of food. Also,the foggy day did not clear until noon.
The count atDavenport, Iowa was a record breaker from almost every standpoint. They got 72species and 11,790 birds. Meanwhile, city bird watchers combing Manhattanmanaged to turn up 48 species. This was good but not a record.
These results ofthe nationwide Christmas Bird Count must be considered unofficial until theyare checked and published by the National Audubon Society in the April issue ofAudubon Field Notes. More than 575 separate counts taken all over the countrymust be analyzed.
All this businessof counting birds at Christmas time was started in 1900 by the late Dr. FrankM. Chapman, a great and kind man who was the father of popular American birdwatching. Twenty-seven persons took part in the first Christmas Count. Theirnumbers increased steadily, but in recent years the sport took a real spurt.There were almost twice as many participants this year as five years ago. Thewatchers, in fact, were so numerous this time that the National Audubon Societyhad to charge an entry fee of 50¢ per person to help defray the expenses ofprinting the results.
The bird-watchingbug is spreading faster than ever, striking people of almost all ages andoccupations. There is no question that it is deeply infectious. For example,Bill Shelton, SI's Florida correspondent who covered the Cocoa count as hisfirst bird-watching assignment, attached the following note to hisdispatch:
"This was afascinating assignment. Incidentally, I spotted the first white pelicans (with9-foot wingspreads) seen on the count. Think I'll join these birdersmyself."
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
When the country's most ardent bird watchers turnedout to make their annual Christmas Bird Count, most of them armed themselveswith pocket bird guides written and illustrated by Roger Tory Peterson. Theseguides are the bibles of American amateur ornithologists, just as Peterson isthe high priest of the bird-watching fraternity. To the envy of bird watcherseverywhere, Peterson holds the record of having seen more kinds of NorthAmerican birds in a single year—572—than any other watcher at any time, and hispowers of identification are uncanny. He not only knows the songs of birds butalso their chip notes (noises other than songs). Even blindfolded, he can namethe birds about him if they are making sounds. Peterson became interested inbirds when he was 11, has been studying them and painting them ever since. Onthe following pages Peterson has painted for SI the birds he would seek mosteagerly in different parts of the U.S. on a Christmas census—some chosenbecause they are rare, others for their beauty.
PINE GROSBEAK: "Although not a rare bird, the pinegrosbeak invades the Northeast area in erratic waves. It was observed in largenumbers last year."
SPOT-BREASTED ORIOLE: "The pi√®ce de résistance inthe Miami region of Florida, this bird mysteriously appeared there from CentralAmerica in August 1949."
BOHEMIAN WAXWING: "This winter visitor from Alaskaand the Canadian northwest cannot be depended upon. I personally haven't seenone east of Denver."
WHITE-TAILED KITE: "A lovely, hawklike bird, ithas become rare in the U.S. This would be my most looked-for species in centraland southern California."
APLOMADO FALCON: "Now all but vanished from theU.S., this falcon is what I would most like to find along the border from theRio Grande to Arizona."
EUROPEAN WIDGEON: "A small population of them,believed to come from Iceland, elects to spend the winter on the Atlanticseaboard instead of in Europe."
CATTLE EGRET: "A newcomer from the Old World, itis now spreading out rapidly and will probably be seen in the Gulf states fromFlorida to Texas."
SMITH'S LONGSPUR: "This rather plain little birdwinters on the southern Great Plains and is one of the few North American birdswhich I have never seen."
THREE-TOED WOODPECKER: "This is the bird I wouldmake an effort to see in Canadian evergreen forests. Unlike most other malewoodpeckers it has a yellow cap."
SNOWY OWL: "Look for this large white owl on thenorthern prairies and along the northeastern sea- coast; an irregular visitorfrom the arctic."
HOW SI COVERED BIRD COUNT
While bird-watching groups across the nation wereorganizing themselves for the big bird count, SI was deploying its own forcesto cover the event under the guidance of Writer John O'Reilly. CorrespondentWilliam Shelton accompanied the Cocoa, Fla. team; James Rowe watched with theSan Benito, Texas group; Frank Nye was at Davenport, Iowa; Robert Nichols atSan Diego, Calif. and Robert Stein at Portland, Ore. O'Reilly covered the CapeMay, N.J. count and later compiled the telegraphed reports into thiscomprehensive summary.
SPECIES SEEN IN WINNING BIRD COUNT
Forty-two observers in Cocoa, Fla. broke the existingrecord of species seen in a Christmas Count--175 by San Diego watchers in1954--by definitely identifying 184 species. These were:
Great blue heron
Little blue heron
Black-crowned night heron
Yellow-crowned night heron
Great black-backed gull
Long-billed marsh wren
Short-billed marsh wren
Northern water thrush
Dusky seaside sparrow