Each winter since 2017, my daughters and I have participated in the Christmas Bird Count. This year was no different. After our first year in the CBC as feeder counters, at the end-of-day compilation, we met new birder friends. They happened to have a club called the Maine Young Birders Club and we joined shortly after. Each month the club ventures out on an excursion into the woods or fields to bird, and we record our sightings on eBird, a citizen science app by Cornell that helps track birds and their behaviors.
Count day was January 1st, and my daughters were assigned our own section of the circle that the MYBC was responsible for counting.
After we did some feeder counting in our own yard for the first part of the morning, we set off by car and on foot to see what we could see. It was raining and slushy. We began at Oceanwood Camp in Old Orchard Beach, but the area we would have walked on was posted, so we walked around the driveway and grounds careful to not to wander onto the posted section. See our list here.
Grateful for the chance to dry off in the car we drove to the next spot—Guild Park. It wasn’t far so not much drying off happened. There’s a small patch of lowlands near the road on the short walk to Guild Park that is usually quite productive, and it didn’t disappoint. There we spotted an adorable Carolina Wren and the only Northern Cardinals of the day. A birding sound app picked up a Northern Saw-whet Owl, but without laying eyes on it myself, I didn’t count it on a list.
Guild Park itself was a lovely walk in the woods. There were so many white tail deer tracks and patches of bright orange jelly fungus that stood out against the neutral grays and greens of the forest. We were hoping for a Barred Owl, but no luck. It was late in the day, so highly possible, but the weather was less than ideal. Still a peaceful walk in the woods, though. See our lists here, and here.
Our next stop was a trail at Dune Grass Golf Club. It followed the power lines and alongside a creek. It was cold, we were tired, and at this point we walked almost 4 miles. There were plenty of American Crows, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmouse, and Dark-eyed Juncos. It was starting to get dark, but we saw a good turn-around point up ahead and just made the decision to get to that point and then make the walk back and call it a day. Just after we said “let’s go a little further” because if we had turned around, we would have missed out on four Golden-crowned Kinglets. We stopped in our tracks and observed their flittering movements. They were the tiniest little round birds of the day. Their little chirps had captured my ears and watching them eat berries and alder cone seeds was the highlight of the day. See our list for Dune Grass here.
What is the Christmas Bird Count you ask?
One of my favorite picture books, COUNTING BIRDS, by Heidi Stemple, illustrated by Clover Robin, happens to share all about this annual event. My daughters had a few questions for her, so Heidi was kind enough to chat with us about her book, and other birdy things. Read on…
Can you tell us about the journey of writing this book?
This is the book that I wanted to write my whole adult life and the one that took me the longest. In a sense, it’s a companion book to my mother, author Jane Yolen’s book OWL MOON. That only makes sense if you know that I’m the little girl in OWL MOON and my dad is the real life “Pa.” He took my brothers and me out owling and birding pretty much as soon as we could walk. So, I really wanted to tell the story of grown-up Heidi owling. It took me about 8 years of trying to figure out that was not the story that needed to be told. My story was already out there. Once I started researching, I realized, it was Frank’s story and the story of this one idea (to count birds not by shooting them) growing exponentially over 100 years, that I wanted to tell. It was at that moment that I realized I wanted to write a nonfiction book. After that, it only took me another 3 years.
When did you start participating in the Christmas Bird Count?
I’m not sure how early I started participating with my dad in all the years I’d go out with him as a kid. As well as, feeder counts with my mom when we were home. But, when I moved back home in 2003, I began doing the count with my Dad again. He had a friend who did the early owling with him—midnight to 2am. He’d pick me up at 2:30am and I’d finish the owling and continue through to the day birding together. After he died in 2006, I began owling only. I did it for him. It was a chore, a labor of sadness and honor for a few years. More than a few, I guess. I think it was in 2013 that I put together a strong group and we dubbed ourselves the OMG, the Owl Moon Gang. That year, we called down 67 owls. That’s a lot. We have not done that well since, of course. But, the OMG works hard every year and almost always calls down a large number of owls to add to the Hampshire Bird Club’s count numbers. It’s a wonderful legacy.
What’s the rarest bird you’ve seen?
Hmmmm. I’m not sure. But, probably the coolest bird I’ve seen in the wild, which was a super rare event here in MA, was the Great Grey Owl that my dad found back in the early 1980s. I’m honestly, in awe of so many birds. I had a Northern Harrier that was hunting in the field behind my house which was amazing (though not rare) and any time I can see a Snowy Owl, I am excited. I’m not the best birder anymore. I bird much less that I’d like. But, I am the most appreciative birder. Each one feels like a real gift—rare or common.
What is your favorite bird?
Easy—Eastern Screech Owl.
At what age did you start writing?
I’ve always written. But, professionally—28.
One other thing—one of the things I am most proud of in my career is that after COUNTING BIRDS came out, I have had dozens of people contact me to say they learned about the CBC and began participating in the count because of the book. And, I began a children and family count locally.
“And all this because Frank Chapman loved birds.”
Thank you so much to Heidi for taking the time to share. We love hearing about birding and the process behind making books about birds.
Good news! There are still signed copies of COUNTING BIRDS available at the Carle Museum through the link below.
Keep your eyes to the skies and have fun out there!