Down for the count
Dedicated birders brave wind and snow for the Christmas Bird Count
I like birds, but I’m no birder. My knowledge of ornithology taps out somewhere between American robin and Canada goose. So I was somewhat surprised when Truckee Meadows Christmas Bird Count leader Dave McNinch said something like, “No problem,” when I said I’d like to take part in the annual bird census, despite my lack of expertise. He said he could put me with a more knowledgeable group, and I could help keep track of the birds.
The Christmas Bird Count began 111 years ago by ornithologist Frank Chapman, who wanted an alternative to the traditional holiday bird hunt. Since then, thousands of volunteer birders nationwide spend what are often cold, blustery days counting birds within a 15-mile radius. Various communities hold counts between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. The Truckee Meadows count took place Dec. 18, with counts at Pyramid Lake and Minden scheduled for Jan. 1 and 2, respectively. The data from these is compiled and later published in the journal American Birds. The idea isn’t so much to document rare birds, but to identify trends.
“There was a time in the Reno count when you didn’t see Canada geese or mourning doves,” said McNinch, who’s been doing local counts for 16 years. “Now you can’t get away from them. Many [birders] here have the same routes and areas every year, and they start developing patterns. We’re starting to see shorebirds—dowitchers, sandpipers—that didn’t use to be here. Why now? And there’s an increase of a hummingbird, Anna’s hummingbird. … It’s remarkable to see hummingbirds in the snow.” He added, “Audubon is trying to do something with that information. Citizen science, that’s what it’s all about.”
Roughly 25 people gathered at a local McDonald’s at 7 a.m. on Dec. 18 to receive their assigned birding areas. They ranged from expert ornithologists to casual birders. Many have taken part in the counts for multiple years and often for consecutive days. Dennis Serdehely, for example, has been doing the counts for 30 years. “Yesterday I did the Fallon count; tomorrow I’ll do Carson,” he said. At the end of the day, the group meets over a potluck dinner to compile the results.
“I like to do Christmas Counts because it’s a combination of looking at the birds, and the social aspect, too,” said Serdehely.
While some dedicate the day to the count, those interested in spending only a few hours are welcome. For four hours, I tagged along with McNinch. Despite heavy gusts of wind that tended to keep all but the hardiest birds in hiding, we managed to see about 20 species within the first hour—from the ubiquitous Canada geese to sparrows, house finches, red-tail hawks, flicker woodpeckers, hooded mergansers and a yellow-rumped warbler. By the time we got to Windy Hill in southwest Reno, the wind had died down, and other bird species began to show themselves. Goldfinches bristled in branches; junco and quail lingered beside fences. Mallards, widgeons, mergansers and a kingfisher spread across a lake, then scattered to its edges as a flock of geese honked its presence and touched down in the lake’s center.
While I returned to a warm home, counted out but content, I thought of the other birders who would be counting for hours more, and go at it again the next day. I’d asked Serdehely earlier, what is it that gets a group of people up at 7 a.m. on a weekend, in rainy, snowy, windy weather, year after year?
“You really have to like birds,” he said.