From the Archives: Tsi-lick! Goes the Henslow’s
And other gleanings of an amateur among professionals on the Christmas Bird Count.
George Plimpton's "Tsi-lick! goes the Henslow's" first ran in the November-December 1973 Audubon.
I should admit at the outset that my credentials as a birdwatcher are slightly sketchy. True, birdwatching is a hobby, and if pressed I tell people that I truly enjoy it: on picnics I pack along a pair of binoculars and the Peterson field guide. But I am not very good at it. Identification of even a mildly rare bird or a confusing fall warbler is a heavy, painstaking business, with considerable riffling through the Peterson, and then a numbing of spirit since I am never really sure. As a birder I have often thought of myself as rather like a tone-deaf person with just a lesson or two in his background who enjoys playing the flute - it's probably mildly pleasurable, but the results are uncertain.
Pressure to better myself as a birder has been consistently exacted on me by my younger brother and sister, who are both good birdwatchers and can hardly wait for fall and the possibility of being confused by warblers during the migration.
Sometimes, when we are all going somewhere in a car, they involve me in a birding quiz which utilizes the Peterson guide. My sister will say, opening the book at random, "All right, the two of you, see if you can guess this one."
She summarizes: "41/4 to 51/4 inches in length. O.K.? The bird is short-tailed and flat-headed with a big pale bill; finely streaked below. The head is olive-colored and striped, and the wings are reddish. Its flight is low and jerky with a twisting motion of the tail..."
"Got it," snaps my brother. "A cinch."
My sister looks at me.
"Well, it's not a brant goose," I say.
"That's very perceptive," she says.
"What's its call?" I ask, indulging in a holding action since I've never been able to remember or indeed hear in my inner ear the dreamy tseeeee-tsaaays or the syrupy zzzchuwunks that pepper Peterson's descriptions.
My sister reads directly from the book. "This bird 'perches atop a weed, from which it utters one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird; throwing back its head, it ejects a hiccoughing tsi-lick. As if to practice this 'song' so that it might not always remain at the bottom of the list, it often hiccoughs all night long.'"
"You're making that up," I say in astonishment. "That doesn't sound like Peterson at all."
"An absolute cinch," says my brother. "You must known."
I decide to take a guess. "A red-eyed vireo."
Both of them groan.
"What is it, Oakes?" my sister asks.
"Of course," she says smugly.
Despite such shortcomings, I was invited last winter to participate in the National Audubon Society's seventy-third annual Christmas Bird Count. I accepted with alacrity, if only in the hope of improving my birdwatching ability, and perhaps, at the least, so I could do better in the Peterson contest with my brother and sister.
For the uninitiated, the Christmas Bird Count was originated in 1900 by the editor of Bird-Lore magazine, Frank M. Chapman, who wished to organize a substitute for a traditional Christmas time wildlife slaughter known as the "side hunt," in which the gentry would "choose sides" and spend a day in the woods and fields blazing at everything that moved to increase their team's total toward the grand accounting at the end of the day.
Chapman's first Christmas count involved twenty-seven people and twenty-five localities. The largest list of birds spotted came from pacific Grove, California (36 species), and Chapman himself reported the second largest (18 species) from Englewood, New Jersey. Those pioneer bird counters could not have been particularly proficient since the 1972 count near Pacific Grove was 179, and the New Jersey count nearest to Englewood was 72.
From its modest beginnings, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count has mushroomed over seven decades - until last year, during the two-week Christmas period, some 20,000 observers were involved. The participating teams 9each has one day of search time allowed and is confined to an area with a fifteen-mile diameter) numbered over 1,000.
I thought I might join two counts - selecting one in the more temperate climate which would be competing for the greatest number of species (presumably over 200) and then perhaps one at the other extreme, such as the 1970 Nome, Alaska, count where a total of only three species was turned up.
Over the past few years the competition for the highest count has been between three areas in California (San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Point Reyes, where in 1971, a huge army of 193 observers was mustered); Cocoa Beach, Florida, where the redoubtable Allan Cruickshank is the field marshal; and Freeport, Texas, a relatively new count organized sixteen years ago by ornithologist Victor Emanuel, who worked at the job until, in 1971, Freeport set the Christmas Bird Count record of 226 species, an astounding total considering the limitations of the fifteen mile circle of land and water.
The Freeport count was the one I decided to join. Emanuel was described to me as being young, eager, and perhaps best known in birdwatching circles for his observations of the Eskimo curlew on Galveston Island in 1959. I told him nothing of my birding inadequacies. A week before Christmas I flew to Houston and drove down to the Freeport area, arriving in the late evening at an A-frame beach house on the Gulf of Mexico (approximately called "The Royal Tern") just in time to hear Emmanuel give a peptalk to his team. His group was young - many of them in their twenties, quite a few beards among them - and an overall mood of intense dedication prevailed, as if a guerrilla operation was afoot.
Emanuel's pep rally essentially sounded as follows: "All right, let's try to get both cormorants, the double-crested and the olivaceous. Get close. Compare. It's the only way. The green heron is a problem bird, and so is the yellow crowned night heron. And the least bittern, a tremendous problem! We've only had it once. Flush him out. He lurks in the cattail areas. Leap up and down. Clap your hands. That sort of behavior will get him up. Ross' goose? I'm concerned. We only had four last year. Look in the sky every once in a while for the ibis soaring. Search among the green-winged teal for the cinnamon." He ran his finger down the list through the ducks. "An oldsquaw would be very nice. The hooded merganser is a problem. Hawks! Cooper's and sharp-shinned - not easy at all. You people in the woods, make a special effort. Look at all the buteos for the Harlan's. The caracara is a big problem, especially if they're held down by the rain; but they might be flying around. Rails? We're relying on you people in the marsh buggy for the rails, and the purple gallinule as well. As for shorebirds, last year we did not do well at all."
"We did our best," someone called out from the shadows.
"Emanuel's right. We missed the marbled godwit," a bearded man said from the corner.
Emanuel continued as if he hadn't heard: "We have a barn owl staked out. Keep an eye out for the screech owl. We have often missed him. There ought to be some groove-billed anis around. Can't miss them. They have weird, comical calls and they look, when they move around, like they're going to fall apart. Check every flicker for the red-shafted. Say's phoebe might be around. Check the ditches. Bewick's wren, a big problem." He tapped his list. "Now," he said. "I'm very worried about the warblers. Last year we were lucky with vireos; we got five different species, and we got seventeen out of the possible twenty warblers. The cold weather is going to drive the insect-eaters like warblers farther south. So I am not at all sanguine about the vireos and warblers. I'd be surprised if we get more than ten. Check every myrtle warbler for the bright-yellow throat that's going to mean Audubon's." He paused. "Now, meadowlark's song. It's quite different from the eastern's, and it's the only way to distinguish between the two species."
Someone interrupted from the back of the room. "Do you realize that the eastern has learned to imitate the western?"
Shouts and cries of "Shut up, Ben!" The man next to me whispered that it was Ben Feltner, a great birding rival of Emanuel's, the first man to spot the famous Galveston Island Eskimo curlew, then thought to be extinct.
Emanuel continued unperturbed. "The sparrow that'll give us the most problem is probably the lark. Search the edges of the brush. It's been missed, and it's very upsetting to miss. Henslow's is another." My heart jumped. My sister's voice, reading from person, sang in my head. "It's better than a groove-billed ani to find a Henslow's," Emanuel was saying - "a devil of a bird. Watch for those reddish wings."
What a moment, I thought, to make an impression - to call out to that roomful of experts, "And don't forget that twisting tail in flight, and that soft hiccough, the tsi-lick that marks the Henslow's." I stirred, but said nothing.
"Longspurs," Emanuel was continuing. "This might be a year for longspurs with the cold snap bringing them in." He folded the list. "Well, that's the end. Good luck to all of you. Don't forget to look behind you. Too many birdwatchers forget to do that - to see what it is that they've stirred up while walking through. My own prognosis is that if we bird well and hard, we'll beat 200 tomorrow, and possibly even get up to 220, but it will take some doing."
A few hands clapped sharply in the back of the room, and someone offered up an exhortatory cry: "Down with Cocoa Beach!"
I've got them psyched up," Emanuel said to me as people got up from the floor and began to stir around. "They have to be. It's not only Cocoa Beach I'm worried about, but San Diego. It's all very nerve-racking."
"I can sense that, : I said truthfully. "I feel as though I've been spying on a professional football team's locker room before the Big Game."
"No one's going to get much sleep," Emanuel said.
The next day, on the run, I kept notes. Victor Emanuel kept me with him as a partner. (Most teams covering the twelve areas of the Freeport count worked as pairs or trios.) Emanuel's personal plan was to hit as many areas as he could to see how his teams were working. My notes, somewhat helter-skelter, read as follows:
Eight cars crowded with birdwatchers are moving slowly down a cart track, bouncing in the ruts, and then the line turns into a field bordering a large pond. It is barely light. Rhode Island Reds are crowing from a nearby barn. From the farmer's bedroom window the cars moving slowly in a row through the dawn half-light must suggest a sinister progression of some sort - a Mafia burial ceremony.
The horizon toward the Gulf sparkles with the constellation of lights that mark the superstructures of the oil refineries, illuminating the tall steamlike plumes of smoke. Electric pylons are everywhere. Quite incongruous to think that this highly visible industrial tangle can contain such a rich variety of birdlife. I mention it to Emanuel. He has just whispered to me that the year before a least grebe had turned up in this area. At my comment I could see his face wince in the dim light and he snorted. He tells me that only a fraction of the wildlife John James Audubon observed when he visited the Texas coast remained. But, still it is a birder's paradise. Why is that so?
"Trees," he said, "large and thick enough to contain and hold the eastern birds; and yet the area is far enough south to get southern and western bids. The cover is so good that the area gets more warblers in its count that Corpus Christi does, which is much farther to the south. Furthermore, there is great diversity - cattle grazing land, the beaches, swampland, ditches, and the Gulf. Since the count started in 1957, the same basic 136 species have turned up every yea r- which gives you some idea of the huge diversity of the regular bird population.
I am tagging along having a good time. I am in awe of Emanuel. Just a flash of wing, or the mildest of sounds, and he has himself an identification. He is so intense that I rarely ask questions. But he shows me things. I have gazed upon the groove-billed ani. True, the bird does fly as if it were about to come apart at the seams. A black wing fluttering down here, a foot there. I have done nothing on my own. Early in the dawn I saw a woodcock flutter across the road, but I was too intimidated to say anything about it. I know the woodcock from New England. Then, at the pond where we were peering at the barely discernible shapes of the ducks, beginning to stir out on the slate-black water, the experts rattling them off (gadwall, canvasback, pintail, et al), someone said, "Oh, did anyone spot the woodcocks coming across the road from the pasture?" And I said "Yes!" like an explosion. "Absolutely!"
Emanuel caught the despairing eagerness in my voice. He has a nice gift for the hyperbole. "That's a terrific bird," he said to me. "Well done!"
We got in Emanuel's car and headed for another area he wanted to bird. I asked him about the Eskimo curlew. He said he hadn't been the first to see the one that had caused all the excitement. On March 22, 1959, two Houston birders - Dudley Deaver and Ben Feltner, the fellow I saw at the peptalk the evening before, wearing the blue jay insignia on his field jacket - had been birding on Galveston Island looking for their first whimbrel, or Hudsonian curlew. In a flock of long-billed curlews they noticed a smallish curlew which they assumed was the whimbrel. But there was something odd about it. It had a very buffy look, and most noticible was a bill much thinner and shorter than the whimbrel's. With considerable excitement they realized they might be looking at a bird which had last been collected in the United States near Norfolk, Nebraska, on April 17, 1915, and which had been categorized as "probably extinct." The only uncertainty lay in Ludlow Griscom's description in Peterson's field guide that the leg color of the Eskimo curlew was dark green. The legs of the curlew they were looking at on Galveston Island were slaty gray.
Two weeks later they took Emanuel out to see what he thought. They discovered the little curlew several miles from where Deaver and Feltner had made the original sighting. "You can imagine how exciting that was," Emanuel told me. "Damn, it was like seeing a dinosaur."
Emanuel was also bothered by leg color, but some research disclosed that not all reports described the Eskimo curlew's legs as dark green. A number of authorities put them down as a "dull slate color" or "grayish blue."
The curlew returned to Galveston for four years in a row. A number of Texas birders got a chance to look at it - on one occasion from about 100 feet away through a 30-power telescope, powerful enough to fill the eyepiece with a bird. All of the experts were convinced. It was a time, Emanuel told me, that he thinks back on a lot.
We met a birder named Dave Smith, who had come in from Wheeling, West Virginia, because he felt his home turf was so limited. Emanuel said, "Hell, I thought you'd come out here for the glory of the Freeport count."
"No," Smith said. "there's not enough swamps in Wheeling."
I asked Emanuel what he considers the qualities of a great birder, and he bagan talking about Jim Tucker. "He is a superb birder. He found us the red-necked grebe at the Texas City dike. He is a vegetarian. He never sleeps. He's got terrific, keen hearing, and since hearing a bird counts just as much as seeing one, that's a great asset. He eats a cracker and keeps going. He stays out on a bird count until 11 P.M. and he['s critical of people who aren't out at midnight at the start, so they can spot, say, a sanderling in the moonlight on the beach, or catch the calls of a migrant bird overhead. One of his most extraordinary feats was to lead a party that spotted 229 species in a single day in Texas, a new national record."
"Now his partner is Roland Wauer. He has the great gift of being able to pick up birds through his binoculars rather than scanning with his eyes. You can imagine what an advantage that is, being able to scan for birds through the binoculars. He'll look down a ravine with his glasses and he'll say, "Oh, wow, there out to be a gray vireo in here somewhere," and he'll find it. That's quite a team, those two."
At lunch, which we were having in a restaurant near the beach (not as much roughing-it as I expected), a balding gentleman assigned to count on the beaches came rushing up behind Victor Emanuel, who was bending over a cup of soup at the counter, and cried out: "Oregon junco!"
Emanuel started at the sharp explosion of sound behind him. Then, when he had spun around on his stool, he seemed skeptical.
"But it had pinkish sides," the gentleman said proudly. "It didn't look at all like the slate-colored junco. There were a lot of those around, maybe 50 or 60, but this fellow was a single junco playing around in the ruts of the road just off the beach."
Emanuel said, "Sometimes the slate-coloreds have pinkish sides."
"Oh," said the balding man. He looked crestfallen.
"No harm in reporting it at the tabulation dinner tonight. The jury will decide."
"I'll think about it," said the man. "I wouldn't want to be taken for a fool."
Emanuel has just given me a lesson on how to tell the difference between Sprague's pipit and the water pipit. Both have the habit of rising vertically out of the gorselike shrubbery of the hummocky country hereabouts, fluttering quite high, as if to look to the horizon to see if anything's of interest, then dropping back quite abruptly to the place where they started from. It's the method of decent that is different. The Sprague's closes its wings at the apogee of its climb and falls like a stone until it is just above the ground, where it brakes abruptly and banks into a bush. The water pipit, on the other hand, drops from the top of its flight in bouncy stages, like a ball tumbling down steep stairs.
"That's a great thing to know," I said. "I'm not sure it's a piece of knowledge I can do very much with. I mean it's not a distinction of daily usage."
Just then, a pipit sprang up in front of us, fluttering up, and then dropped sharply back to earth.
"Sprague's," I said.
"Absolutely brilliant," said Emanuel. "You see, you never know."
Emanuel had to take an hour out of birdwatching to be honored at a chamber of commerce meeting. A punch was served and chocolate-chip cookies. A number of birders were there, looking uncomfortable, minds on their lists and anxious to move on.
An official of the chamber rapped for silence. He had an American flag in his lapel. He said in a clear, sincere municipal voice that the community was proud to have the great Freeport bird count in its area. Texas was number one, as everyone was aware, but the nearest municipality, Houston had been letting everybody down with the Houston Oilers, and the Houston Astros, and the Houston Rockets, who were not displaying the Texas winning spirit worth a damn. It was refreshing to know that at least the bird count team was number one. He called out, "We've got to be number one in something!"
He looked (rather desperately, I thought) at Emanuel, who nodded vaguely and said they had a very good chance to be.
"Well, go and bust them," the official said, with a gesture that slopped some of the fruit punch out of his glass. "What we might do," he went on, "is put some sort of statue around here to show that this area is number one in birds. A big, tall stone, or maybe a brass bird." The muscles of his face subsided in reflection. The buzz of conversation rose around the room.
With the official greeting over, a number of the townspeople came up to offer suggestions. I heard one person saying to a member of the count team, "I just promise you - there was a falcon, a big tall falcon, sitting on a branch behind the bank. Sure'n shootin' you rush over and he's there to be spotted. Big tall fellah." The birdwatchers listened politely. Emanuel nudged me and said that it was often worthwhile. The Freeport count, he said, had always relied on the "hummingbird lady" who had a feeding station to which three kinds of hummingbirds had come the previous year. She didn't know enough to distinguish one from another, but the birds came to her, and they'd had a count team in her garden which came back with the ruby-throated, the buff-bellied, and the rufous. Of course, that had been a warm Christmas. Still, a team was assigned the "hummingbird lady," and they'd be making their report of the tabulation dinner.
A somewhat brassy female reporter came up to David Marrack, a British-born birdwatcher, and asked: "I am hearing that the warblers - is that the right word - are off. Is that bad news for your bird-hunters... I mean watchers?"
Marrack replied: "The cold has destroyed the insects. Quod - no warblers,"
"I beg your pardon."
He inspected her. "It's too bloody cold," he announced clearly.
We are running through cottonwood thickets looking for Harris' sparrow - the biggest of the sparrows, which summers in the subarctic forests (Emanuel tells me) and winters in the central plains, west to North Texas. With the cold weather, a specimen should be in the vicinity, most likely in amongst the white-crowned sparrows. Every once in a while in our search we step around the whitened bones of a cow skeleton - drowned, I suppose, by the flooding of the creek that flows by just beyond the trees.
In midafternoon Emanuel spots a bird in the top of a tree. He beings swaying back and forth in his excitement. "Oh my." Without taking his eyes from his binoculars, he motions me forward.
"A Harris' sparrow?" I ask.
"It's better," he whispers. "Much better. It's a rose-breasted grosbeak. No one else will get this. Oh terrific. It's only been seen once before on the count." We stared at the bird. I could see the wash of pink at its throat. When it flew, the sun made it blaze, and then oddly, a barn owl floated out of the trees behind it.
An hour later. What has happened has eclipsed the excitement of the rose-breasted grosbeak. The two of us had not been seeing much, winding down after the long day, and I was trailing along behind Emanuel, idly speculating about what sort of a bird he most closely resembled. It is not an uncommon speculation. William Faulkner once said he would like to be a buzzard because nothing hates him or envies him or wants him and he could eat anything. I myself have always opted for hadedah ibis, a large African wading bird that springs into the air when flushed from a riverbed with a haunting loud bellow, which gives it its name, and defecates wildly into the water below. It is not so much the latter habit that I envy as the habit of the bird, to be able to perch on the smooth bark of the acacia and overlook the swift water of the river and see what comes down to it, that great variety of life, and what happens.
I had no intention of pressing Emanuel on such a fancy, but my own speculation, watching him peer this way and that through the shrubbery, furtive and yet sleek, is that he might pass... well, as a brown thrasher.
Just then, he froze in front of me, staring at a spot twenty or thirty feet in front of him. His bird glasses came up.
"Oh my," I heard him whisper. "Wait until I tell Ben."
"Is it Harris' sparrow?" I asked.
"My God, no, look... It's the magnolia warbler. Oh, Ben is going to die, absolutely die. Don't you see? It's a first for the count. He is almost breathless with excitement.
I spotted the warbler through my glasses. Beside me Emanuel kept up a running whispering commentary. "My first thought was that it was a myrtie warbler. Then I saw yellow underneath, and I knew we had something good. White eye-ring, very delicate yellow pip over the beak. No doubt. Oh, wow! It will kill Ben. Green back. Two wing bars, one short, one long. White in tail. Very prominent. Very beautiful."
He took out a pad of paper and began writing down a description of the warbler, which was now fluttering about in a bush in front of us.
"He's feeding well. The magnolia is very common in migration, but it's never lingered like this. It's such a joy to find a warbler in winter."
Just then the bird flew. "Ah!" cried Emanuel happily. "The white flash in the tail. That's the absolute clincher." He turned, his eyes shining with excitement.
"Oh, yes," I said. I struggled for something else to say "That's the damnedest thing I ever saw," I said.
Wow! This was all beginning to go to my head. The sun was starting to go down. I found that I had been absolutely exhausted by Emanuel's enthusiasm.
The tabulation dinner was held at a roadside cafe called Jack's Restaurant in the town of Angleton, which is about halfway between Freeport and Houston. Almost all of the bird count teams 955 people altogether) were there. We sat at long tables arranged in rows along three sides of a brightly lighted banquet room with red-and-green Christmas crepe pinned up between the light fixtures. The place was taut with expectation. Some of the birders gossiped about what they had seen; others affected a smug air of superiority and mystery, containing themselves and the tabulation. I overheard Emanuel saying to Ben Feltner. "I got a bird's never been on the Freeport list."
"You're kidding," said Ben.
Emanuel grinned enormously. "You'll jump out of your seat."
"What is it?"
"I won't tell you. It's a warbler."
Ben stared at him. "Come on."
"You'll have to wait," Emanuel said.
After the dinner Emanuel began the proceedings with a short speech. He announced that the panel that would rule on questionable sightings would consist of himself, Ben Feltner, and Jim Tucker. He said that it was important to maintain the integrity of the Freeport count, and that the panel would strive for a high degree of accuracy. It was important that the judgments be made right away, that very evening, so that those birdwatchers who had accidentals or rare sightings to offer should be prepared to substantiate them. He hoped no one would be defensive about his birds; it was a necessary procedure.
Emanuel's master list was divided into three categories - the regular species )birds seen on practically every Freeport count); the essential species (birds seen on most counts but which were present in low numbers and required hard work to locate, and are the keys to a successful high count); and finally the bonus birds, which are rare and not to be expected at all.
Emanuel rattled his list, looked down at it, and began - calling out the name of a bird and looking around the room for someone to raise a hand in acknowledgement that the bird had been seen. Some of the acknowledgments produced cries of delight - and often the team responsible, sitting together at the table, slapped each other's hands like the delighted gestures of ballplayers running back to the bench after a touchdown.
Sometimes, though, a missed bird, especially if it was an "essential" species, brought cries of woe.
"Horned grebe?" Emanuel looked around. No hands were up. Dismay.
"Ross' goose? Black duck? Goldeneye?" Gloom.
But then Dennis Shepler heightened spirits considerably by putting his hand up for the cinnamon teal. "Three males, two females," he said. Shouts of approbation.
A hand went up. Pandemonium! The birder described it as a single adult, soaring over the lake. Emanuel cried out, "Wonderful, marvelous." Spirits were lifted; some good-natured badinage began - the eagle team being joshed for sighting "a crated bird." "They brought it with them!" someone shouted happily.
The tabulation went on. No hummingbirds had been seen at the "hummingbird lady's" feeder. Horrified cries. Emanuel shook his head. He paused before going on, as if someone would surely recollect that small buzz of color and announce it. He waited, then disconsolately went on. A caracara had been seen. Abruptly the mood shifted again. Shouts of delight. One of the team responsible said they had watched the caracara catch a shrike and eat it. More shouts of glee. I wondered moodily if the shrike would be remembered in the count.
"Peregrine falcon?" Two had been seen, but no pigeon hawks were acknowledged. Groans. The marsh buggy team got a solid round of hand-clapping for having flushed up a yellow rail.
The climax of emotion came with the approach of the count to the plateau of 200. When a few hands went up for the parula warbler, the 200th bird identified, the entire room rose amidst a storm of clapping and cheering.
At 203 the master list was done, and it was time for the birdwatchers to stand up and offer bonus species. The room quieted down. The 204th species was a pyrrhuloxia, a bird I had never even heard of. The birder, who was an expert from New Jersey, stood and described the specimen in a soft and very difficult stutter, everyone at the tables leaning forward in sympathy with this effort to get his description out. He talked about the bird's yellow bill and its loose crest and how he'd seen it in the salt cedars. One heavily bearded birder astounded everyone by announcing four bonus birds - my old pal the Henslow's sparrow, a fish crow, an eastern wood pewee, and the Philadelphia vireo. Each was described; he said he had flushed the sparrow out of dry grass. He didn't mention the hiccoughing song. A Swainson's hawk was 209. Then Emanuel himself rose and announced his two prizes, the rose-breasted grosbeak and the magnolia warbler, grinning in triumph at Ben Feltner as he described the latter. Feltner's eyebrows went up. He pulled at his beard. It was difficult to tell how he was taking it. Emanuel said that I had been along with him and was there for verification; I gave a slight nod at Feltner and looked very arch. There was a tumult of applause when Emanuel sat down.
The 215th, and last, bird offered was a Harlan's hawk. The birdwatcher was quizzed quite sharply by the panel. The hawk was in the light phase, he said, and the sun shone through the tail, which was completely pale except for a black marking toward the end. No, he hadn't seen the back of the bird. It was paler than a red-tailed. The panel looked skeptical; Emanuel tapped a spoon against his front teeth.
Emanuel's panel then disappeared to discuss not only the bonus birds but questionable sightings from the master list. They came back and Emanuel announced that seven birds had not been allowed. He did not say which seven - that might have embarrassed some people who may simply have been overzealous.
The balding man from the beach had his Oregon junco accepted. I grinned at him, and he came over. "Good news, eh?" he said. "Well, I was confident. I know the Oregon junco very well; I've trapped them, and banded them, and maybe the jury took that into consideration. They're not many people around who know the Oregon junco like I do, nosir!"
Afterwards Emanuel told me the sort of process the panel had gone through. "Well, we knocked out the olivaceous cormorant from the master list; we'll have to assume it was a double-crested. The spotter didn't mention the white border along the pouch, which is an essential field mark, and besides, it's very difficult to distinguish the olivaceous unless you get a size comparison with the double-crested. So we let it go. We dropped the gray-cheeked thrush because the observer didn't emphasize the vireo's slower and skulkier movements. He probably saw a pine warbler. Then from the bonus birds we voted out the Philadelphia vireo, and also the sighting of the wood pewee because it's easily confused with the eastern phoebe. As for that fish crow, well, heavens, his voice is unmistakable, that nasal cah, and that essential was never mentioned. The Harlan's hawk just didn't sound right either; it could have been red-tailed.
We went through the list, ticking off the disallowed birds with obvious sorrow. Some of the votes of the panel had not been unanimous, and every rejection lowered the chances of winning the bird count championship. "Let's see," he said. "That's 208 birds. I'm scared," he said. "We'll have to keep our fingers crossed."
A few days later, Emanuel called me in New York to tell me how Freeport had fared in competition with other high-count areas. He recapitulated that the areas that bothered him competitively were the three major California counts. To his delight he had found that the cold weather had hurt these California counts as much as it had Freeport's and that san Diego and Santa Barbara were tied with only 195 species.
That left Cocoa Beach, Florida, to be worried about. Two years before, Cocoa Beach had beaten out Freeport by just one species, 205 to 204. Emanuel decided he was going to wait until after the count period ended (January 1st) before calling Allan Cruickshank, his counterpart, to find out what their total was. In the meantime he was going off to Mexico to take his mind off the competition by doing some birding down there. His pecial loves are hawks, and there are two hawks in Mexico he would just about fall down and die to see - the orange-breasted falcon, which hangs around ruins (he told me), and the back-collared or chestnut hawk.
In mid-January he wrote me a letter in which he said that the Mexico trip had been an astounding success. He had not seen his two hawks, but his letter was lively with accounts of sightings of flocks of military macaws, "a veritable din of squawking as a magnificent flock came pouring over the side of the mountain."
He wrote that on his return he had gone back down to Freeport on December 31st with a friend from Tennessee "to show him some birds." While there he decided to drop in on the "hummingbird lady" to find out what had happened to count day. She was sitting with her mother in the parlor watching the Dallas Cowboys on television. "Well," she said, "certainly two kinds of hummingbirds had turned up that day." Emanuel's eyes widened. The hummingbirds came to the feeder every morning at 8:00 A.M. ("You could almost set your clock by them"), and that day was no exception. She had seen them a number of times. The trouble was that the ladies from the count team hadn't arrived until midafternoon, when the birds had left the feeder for the last time. Emanuel gave a whoop at this, making the mother, who was idly watching the Cowboys standing around during a timeout, start in her seat, and he forthwith boosted the Freeport count to 209.
It turned out to be a fortuitous visit - since a January 7th call to Cruickshank produced the information that the Cocoa Beach count was also 209. Thus the two leading bird count areas in the country were matched in an unprecedented tie.
I wrote Emanuel a short letter of congratulations. I told him that I was proud to have been on a championship team, even if their triumph had to be shared. I didn't tell him that I myself had had a birdwatcher's triumph of sorts recently. I had found myself seated next to a lady at dinner who begun talking about birds quite without my prompting (the dining room had framed Audubon prints on the wall, perhaps that was why), and she said that the trouble with people who enjoyed birdwatching was that so many of them were unbearably pretentious. "Now take those disgusting people who take so much stock in that ritual of the Christmas Bird Count..."
"What a coincidence," I said. "I was on the Freeport count.
She was very arch.
Something stirred in my memory. "I'll bet you can't guess what we turned up," I said. "Perched on a weed, it's head thrown back, and uttering the feeblest of hiccoughing noises, a sort of tsi-lick. Are those enough hints for you?" She looked at me with a gaze of distaste. "Flattish head, as I recall," I went on, "with a tail that twists in flight. Why that's Henslow's sparrow," I said quickly, in case she knew enough to interrupt me.
I hitched my chair forward. "How are you on pipits?" I asked. "Would you care to hear a rather nice field characteristic that'll straighten them out for you. Let's start with Sprague's," I said in a strong voice that turned heads at the table...
Quite at the other end of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count scale are those reports from locales with limited birdwatching possibilities. I thought it would be interesting to compare the plethora of Freeport with the miniscule counts from such places as Nome, Alaska, for example, where in 1970 eight people went out from 9:00 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. in a wind-chill factor of -40@ and worked with as much zeal as the Freeport people to collect a total of three birds - the willow ptarmigan, common raven, and McKay's bunting. The bunting caused considerable excitement. Apparently, the only other bird the Nome contingent had a good chance of seeing was the common eider. I decided, however, that going to a place where the most species on could hope to find was four was perhaps overextending the notion of comparing bird counts, and I opted instead for a less insidious contract - the pelagic trip aboard the ferry Bluenose which plies the 95 miles of the Bay of Fundy between Bar Harbor, Maine, and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
My host was Edward Thompson, who met me at the Bangor airport. He turned out to be a chemical engineer, a specialist in the physical properties of polymers, which (as I understood his explanation as he drove homeward) have something to do with molecules. He had the car heat on, but I found myself running my mittened hands to keep them warm. The snow squeaked under the tires. The temperature was 9@, Thompson told me, but that was like being in a furnace room compared to what it was going to be like on the Bluenose the next day. The wind-chill factor would be many degrees below zero since it was the custom for the bird count team to stand in the open of the Bluenose bow - no self-coddling behavior such as trying to spot birds through the big plate glass windows of the passengers' lounge.
"Oh," I said.
"We had a fellow come out one year who had a batter-heated suit," Thompson said. "It had a huge battery on the belt. He was very uneasy about it. He thought if he got any spray on him he was going to short-circuit. It was rough, with the spray coming over the bow, and he spent a lot of the voyage in the lounge, with the passengers looking at him curiously."
"I can imagine," I said.
We reached the Thompson home, and he introduced me to his wife, Deborah. She was an art historian and an archeologist foremost, with birds somewhat far down the list, I assumed from the slightly bemused look that appeared on her face when I announced how much I was looking forward to the boat trip the next day.
Apparently the past week had been frantic with the bird count going on. The big competition between the Deer Isle Group and the Mount Desert birders had been won by Mount Desert this year - much to Ed Thompson's dismay (he closed his fist and smacked it against his knee), though of course Mount Desert had a much bigger land mass and more feeders. They could be expected to win. Last year (Thompson recalled with relish) their feeders had let them down, and six species they should have nailed down had never showed up.
"Does a dead bird count?" I asked. "I mean if you ran over a bird with your car...?"
"I think most Christmas count birders would rush to give it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation," his wife said. "If it budged at all, it'd go on the list." Her attitude was unclear to me.
The telephone rang. Thompson answered it and his face fell slightly, and then brightened. "Goodness!" he said.
"He hung up and rejoined us. "Well, the bad news is that the weather is probably going to be good." He saw the relief (my sealegs are questionable) and then the surprise register on my face. "You're more likely to see pelagic birds in stormy weather," he explained. "The wind picks them up off the water. Now the good news is this: a woman in Ellsworth who lives next door to the library has been noticing a bird at her feeder for the last foud days which looked like a small robin. After three days of burrowing around in her Peterson guide she finally got up enough nerve to get an authoritative birdwatcher over and, sure enough, what she had there was a varied thrush."
I tried to make an appropriate expression of surprise.
"Oh-ho," I said.
"Yes," Thompson said, "Its range is strictly western... really quite an accidental. We ought to be able to get it on the Ellsworth bird count list."
His wife began laying out the dinner plates - five places. "We're expecting a couple from California," she said. "The Gerald Maisels. Birdwatchers."
"We ought to be able to get it on the Ellsworth bird count list."
His wife began laying out the dinner plates - five places. "We're expecting a couple from California," she said. "The Gerald Maisels. Birdwatchers."
"We don't know them," Thompson said. "He's a doctor - an anesthesiologist. It's their first trip to the East. Apparently he's working on his life-list. He asked if he and his wife could join us for the Bluenose trip."
His wife made a face and said she didn't really approve of this sort of life-list birder devoted solely to the numbers. "I'm very skeptical," she said.
Her husband argued that it was too early to make any judgments about their visitors. "We know so little about the Maisels," he said. "They sent us a Christmas card. That's the only evidence so far."
He went and fetched it from the mantelpiece. It showed the doctor and his wife birding on the Galapagos Islands. In the foreground was a somewhat startled-looking blue-footed booby sitting on what passes for its nest, while in the background were the Maisels. It was difficult to tell much about them. The doctor was almost hidden by a large tropical hat, and both he and his wife, who was wearing dark glasses, were slightly out of focus. The booby was very much in focus. The card read, "Greetings. Blue-footed Boobies, Hood Island, June 1972."
Thompson's wife said, "Of course, the really intense birdwatchers don't send Christmas cards. They're too busy watching birds - they'd be out in the field somewhere."
"Have you ever seen a blue-footed booby?" I asked.
The Thompsons looked at each other fondly. "We saw the blue-footed booby on, of all places, a recreation lake in Pasadena, California," Thompson said. "The word had whizzed around that there was a booby out there - and we rented a little boat that had foot paddles and we pumped way out to see it."
I asked Thompson what his rarest sighting has been in his own area. He said it was a yellow-nosed albatross he had seen from the Bluenose in June 1967.
"Oh, my. The albatross was in flight and cut diagonally across the bow of the ship... an absolutely spectacular sight," he said. "I had the bird in view for a good half-minute, by far and away my best sighting. Really accidental, with no tropical storm to blow it up from the south, nothing to suggest why the bird was there. Quite extraordinary. I submitted the record to Audubon Field Notes, but the editor for the region was unknown to me, and I to him, and my report was never published. I didn't take it particularly personally. I'd had the good fortune to make the sighting, and that in itself was enough."
Just then the doctor and his wife arrived by taxi - stepping into the vestibule and stomping their feet and whistling their relief to be in from the cold.
"Ouch," said the doctor. He rose up and down swiftly on his toes. He was a small lively man. Dinner was ready, and almost as soon as he drew up his chair under him the doctor began talking about his life-list. It totaled 553 birds at the moment, which wasn't much compared to some of the people who had been at it for years, but he and his wife had just come up from the Southeast, which had been a great success. "We just wiped out Florida!" he explained.
I asked how many birds one could possibly find in the continental United States, what the ultimate number on a life-list might be.
It was hard to pinpoint (I was told), because obviously "accidentals" and introduced species made the top figure fluctuate, but it would be in the neighborhood of 780. Joe Taylor from Rochester, New York, was the top man in the country at the moment, in fact the only 700 man there was.
"The doctor leaned back and sighed with admiration. "Think of that," he whispered. "To reach that 700 plateau. Goodness? Of course, once you get over 675, people call in with sightings and you've got to have the wherewithal and the ability to rush off and get there - wherever it is." His voice squeaked with excitement. Perched on the edge of his chair, he seemed poised for flight himself. "Think of those phone calls coming in@ 'Mr. Taylor, we think we have ...' Oh, my! He must have a suitcase packed and ready right by his front door. I myself am in a position to do that. I'm a freelance anesthesiologist and we haven't any children, so I can take off at a moment's noise. One Saturday afternoon I heard that a tufted duck had been sighted in San Francisco. I flew out immediately and got myself out of the Golden Gate Park and saw it. It looked like a lesser scaup."
"We had a fork-tailed flycatcher here in Maine," Thompson said. "Joe Taylor was called right away. He should have come, he didn't."
The doctor was aghast. "He didn't?"
"Well, there are rumors around that the steam has gone out of Joe Taylor in recent years." Thompson said. "They turned up a ruddy ground dove for him in the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and he only looked at it for two seconds."
"Goodness gracious!" said the doctor.
They began gossiping about a figure in birdwatching circles considered a consummate birder - one Guy McCaskie, often referred to as the "Pope." "He puts out edicts," the doctor explained. "He is supreme in Southern California. If he says he has three longspurs in a ditch, he had them. He's completely dedicated. He'll watch an English sparrow for six hours."
Ed Thompson leaned forward. "The only criticism we hear about McCaskie here in the East is that he's not very good with his ears."
"Well, my goodness..."
"Of course, that's a criticism one can make about Western birders in general - that because there's so much open space out there you can see the bird better and you don't have to spend much time crouched in thickets relying on your ears. In a May birdwalk in the East as many as two-thirds of the birds will be heard rather that seen. We have people in the East who can identify by just the smallest of chirps."
He rocked back and forth.
"Are you allowed to count introduced birds on your list?" I asked.
"Why (the doctor said in some heat) if you disallowed introduced species, a birdwatcher would be hard-pressed to get over 600 different species on his life-list - pheasant, English sparrow, monk parakeet, the list is simply huge! And it gets bigger every year. People throw a caged bird or two in the air to see what happens... and if you throw enough of the same species, they're going to get together and breed. The canary-winged parakeet is doing well, so is the red-whiskered bulbul, really well; the blue-gray tanager..."
Thompson said that he had seen a toucan being chased down a Miami street by a blue jay.
"Of course," said the doctor. "On Vancouver there's crested mynas and skylars and they've been around for seventy years. The European tree sparrow has been breeding around St. Louis for a century. Everyone counts it on their list. We went down to Delray in Florida and saw two hill mynas. There's a woman down there who practically makes a career of showing off these mynas - people come from all over the country and knock on her door. She takes 'em out back somewhere and guarantees a sighting, but the fact is that the mynas are breeding and spreading so fast that I suspect they'll put her out of business. I've been told there are 1,500 of them in the area... certainly a countable bird."
The doctor looked at Thompson. "What about the lesser black-backed gull?" he asked abruptly. "Do I have a chance of seeing him tomorrow?"
"Terribly rare," Thompson said. "More of a possibility in Nova Scotia than here. Really rare. I've only seen one." He put his fingertips together. "Other than the pelagic birds you'll see tomorrow, there are a number of others you'll want for your list. You'll go to Newburyport for your snowy owl. You'll want an Ipswich sparrow. Plum Island for him. It's a good place, though of course there're others."
"Well, it's like sex," the doctor said brightly. "You take it where you can get it."
"Yes," said Thompson vaguely.
"What about other owls," the doctor's wife asked. "Do you have anything else in owls? A hawk owl?"
"There've been two spottings of hawk owls in the last eight years," Thompson said. "A terrible cold would have to drive them down from the Arctic. In Quebec and Montreal, sightings are routine. But in New England, no... not at all."
"Gee, darling, you know better than that!" the doctor exclaimed. "No, no, no."
"Well, in fact," Thompson said sympathetically, "there are breeding records from back in 19-something-or-other of a pair of boreal owls up north somewhere. Let me see. How about the great gray? We can offer you the great gray owl."
"No, we wouldn't go out of our way for that. We have him," the doctor said. "We got him on the town dump at Fort Klamath, Oregon. We photographed him, and we baited him with black mice so we'd get nice contrast in the picture. We got the black mice from a friend of mine who's a biologist."
The doctor began talking about the purity of the life-list and now indispensable one's own integrity was to keeping a good list. "I've begun to sanitize my own life-list," he said. "It has been agonizing. I removed both the Hammond's and the dusky flycatchers. It was almost like losing two patients," he said. "But I just wasn't sure."
"Well, I've got them on my list," his wife said stoutly.
"That's totally inexcusable, since we both saw them, or what we thought was them, at the same time," the doctor said.
"Well, you've got the re-billed pigeon on your list," his wife replied quickly.
"It's not unreasonable," the doctor said. "It's not a perfect red-billed pigeon - in fact I took it off for a while - but then I listened to it again and put it back on."
I asked, "You found it again? The red-billed pigeon?"
The doctor looked startled. "No, no." he said. "I listened to it on my tape recorder - I have a Norelco with me always - and I had enough sounds on there to make me feel quite comfortable about keeping it on my list."
"Where'd you see the red-pilled pigeon?" asked Thompson.
"In Texas. Early in May. No white in the corner of the tail, which is very short. I was quite sure."
"They like tall old trees," Thompson pointed out, "the heights, not low down."
The doctor shook his head. "No, that's not true. The red-billed flies low, and keeps low."
Ed Thompson went on as if he had not heard. ("You get quite a few sightings when the Rio Grande floods"), but it was obvious a gauntlet had been thrown down. The two of them got into a heated dispute about the difference between whistling and thumpeter swans. The doctor said it was very difficult. Thompson was quite scornful, citing the trumpeter's size. "But he's massive in comparison."
Then they got going on buntings. "You can find all four kinds in Norman, Oklahoma," the doctor said. "They've got the lesser prairie chicken there."
"No, no, no." Thompson jumped in. "Much more in western Oklahoma."
"Well..." said the doctor, shaking his head, and I could see that he was mustering his arguments.
I decided that was just a fine time to leave them - the issue of the locale of the lesser prairie chicken having been joined - and I excused myself and sneaked up to bed. I'm not even sure they were aware of my departure.
Here are my notes for the next day - fuller than I would have written in more normal circumstances. I wrote them at some length in the relative warmth of the lounge of the Bluenose, retreating there from the bow, where the six birdwatchers - to whom I would occasionally murmur, "Well, I really must go and write something down about this. Excuse me." - peered out through their wool masks at the empty surface of the gray sea. And buffeted by the winds I would skitter across the steel deck by the big winches to the inside companionway with its set of double doors to the lounge. After a while, when my hands began to recover form the cold, and the fingers could work, I wrote in the notebooks...
The Bluenose is passing Egg Rock on the way to open water. I am dressed in thermal underwear, three sweaters, a suit coat, an arctic sheepskin overcoat, and a red ski hat with tassel, but no face mask, which is a mistake. Everyone else has one - the breath condensing in a circle of frost around the opening of the mouth. The doctor is wearing a jacket he designed especially for birding - a pocket for his tape recorder, another for a little camera, a side pocket for bird guides, notebooks, and pencils, and a puch in back for "lunch." Certainly he doesn't want to miss a trick. During breakfast (which we had aboard the Bluenose at dockside) he took out the tape recorder and I heard him whisper into it: "We are having breakfast in the Bluenose saloon."
The sea is covered with sea mist, scudding before a 15-knot wind. The visibility is extremely poor. We are up in the bow of the Bluenose. The ship's foghorn goes off behind us every minute or so - making the group jump in unison. Ed Thompson says the fog may help us see birds since we won't flush them off the water until we're right on top of them. To this writing (9:30 A.M.) we have seen the common loon (a distinctive whippy motion of the wings hauls the bird off the water), common eider, black-legged kittiwake, black guillemots, oldsquaw, and common goldeneye - almost all viewed from a considerable distance, specks against the gray smoking swells.
The doctor leans into the wind like a figurehead. From time to time he speaks into his machine. He has two lifers so far to add to his list - the eider and the great black-backed gull. I heard him say into the recorder: "The black-backed gull - 100 yards away settling into water - very large, feet pinkish..." He saw me looking at him, and he turned away, his voice lowering, as if he had a secret to impart to his machine.
The lounge of the Bluenose is depressing. The ocean is not rough, but many passengers are lying on their backs on the red plastic-covered benches, rolling slowly back and forth to the ship's motion. I have just been up to the bridge to see the captain and ask him his impressions of the Christmas Bird Count people. We can look down on them through the glass of the wheelhouse and see them huddled together - a forlorn group that continues to start slightly at the sudden rattling bellow of the foghorn above us. The captain, who was born in Newfoundland, said that he felt sorry for the birders sometimes, but that over the years he had become conditioned to their self-induced misery. "I've had as many as thirty of them up there in the bow - crouched up there in the wind - all the way over and all the way back. I don't get it, frankly. I can see hunting birds, but freezing yourself to death looking at them out there... well, I just don't know. The chief officer is your birdman, and he's been trying to explain it to me for years. I've only seen on birdwatcher who had any sense. He had these binoculars which had one of the sections converted into a whiskey flask. That's right. I could look down and see him. He'd have the glasses up to his eyes for a while, and then I'd see him unscrew one of his eyepieces, and then he'd look around, cageylike, to be sure no one was seeing, and he'd tilt his head back and take a big quick drink out of his binoculars, God's truth."
Bill Russell, one of our group, was saying into the teeth of that awful wind sweeping over the bow that there are two grand joys to pelagic birding: First, the oceans are linked, and the sighting of any seabird from wherever is thus possible. The only barrier is the figure-eight configuration of the Sargasso Sea - that dead birdless area, probably the only one of the seas devoid of winds, which birds enjoy and need. And then second, pelagic birders can see vast distances - none of this being cooped up in a thicket trying to focus on a warbler nine feet away. He swung his arms back and forth and peered into the mists.
My own feeling about viewing pelagic birds, at least in these frigid wasts, is less euphuistic. All of the Alcidae, which are the most interesting birds out ther e- the puffins, auks, guillemots, dovekies, et al - fly low to the water; their flight is hurried and their mien somehow furtive, flying away from us in their fluttery flight as if harried by the enormous iron tonnage intruding on their domain. But Russell loves them. He spots one. "Alcids!" he shouts as he peers forward to distinguish its species.
The doctor has just seen his first puffin, but his viewing was obscured by the sea mists and not distinct enough for him to mark the puffin down on his life-list. He is very self-righteous about it. "Absolutely not," he says, "I didn't see it clearly enough. It has to be done right. It's like losing one's virginity. The circumstances must be right!"
The doctor now has five lifers. In addition to his common eider and the great black-backed gull, he has added three Alcids - the thick-billed murre, the black guillermot, and the dovekie. He continues to torture himself not only with the puffin sighting (he has not seen another) but with the question of what to do with his Iceland gull, which he'd seen just at the Yarmouth harbor entrance, ripping down the wind drafts, hanging briefly over the funnel of the Bluenose before disappearing astern. The problem was not identification but whether he could put the gull on a state list restricted to Maine. "We're too near Nova Scotia," he said mournfully. "I don't think I can do it."
Ed Thompson was sympathetic. "Some authorities say that territorial waters extend to whatever distance the needs of the birder require."
"Oh dear, I don't know. I don't know," the doctor said. He began speaking into his machine.
We will be docking shortly at Yarmouth. My plan is to leave the birders (who have logged 23 species and will make the return trip to try to increase their count-poised once more in the bow of the Bluenose) and fly to Boston. I feel guilty not seeing the whole adventure through, though perhaps not unduly so: the cold has seized me cruelly - the shaking and shivering, and a strange fluted squeakiness of voice by now having become a chronic condition, unchanged even by the relative warmth of the ship's lounge. I stamp my feet. The passengers, now beginning to stir and look chirpy after their queasiness, look over curiously.
One of them came over and asked politely if I was staying in Yarmouth long.
"No," I said without thinking. "I'm flying right out - to Boston."
"The passenger's jaw, which was working on gum, stopped moving. He was considering the odd paradox of someone taking a six-hour ocean voyage from the continental United States in order to take a plane flight directly back into it.
"I'm a birder," I said.
It did not help matters. His hand drifted up and toyed with the collar of his windbreaker.
I continued: "We've been looking at the durres and the mauks." I had been meaning to say murres and auks, but had I got it right it would not have soothed his ruffled state of mind. His eyes were glazed.
"I saw a dovekie," I said.
He cleared his throat, and I thought he was going to say something. He never got it out. I turned away. I knew he was staring at me. It's one of the conditions of bird-watching - to have one's back stared at.