On Saturday, December 16, bleary-eyed, I arrived at an access point to the Eastern Trail in Scarborough. The sun was at least an hour from rising and the air was frigid.
Any other Saturday, I would still be in my bed, hours from waking up. But that Saturday was the Portland Christmas Bird Count.
The Christmas Bird Count, which started in 1900, is the country’s oldest citizen science event that deals with birds. From December 14 through January 5 each year, birders go out in groups to do a census of all the birds they find within a 15 mile radius (each group has territories within the radius). Because the of the long-term and consistent nature of the data gathered, the CBC gives scientists the ability to study larger trends in bird populations and ranges.
I tagged along with Maine Audubon’s Staff Naturalist Doug Hitchcox, Nathan Hall, and Erin Whitham. After quick introductions, we started our icy walk to the Scarborough Marsh. We were out that early hour specifically to increase our chances of spotting a Short-eared Owl.
But there was… silence. Then a couple of crows and ravens. As the sunlight started to permeate the landscape, there were more signs of life. A Northern Flicker called, then revealed itself along with two others. Canada Geese flew overhead. A Northern Harrier soared in the distance. A Snow Bunting peeped. Then a American Pipit. We could see the Maine Young Birders club through the scope near the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center, counting the birds in their territory. The boundary between ours and theirs was the Nonesuch River, so we had to stick to the our side of the river when counting.
Frost started to encircle Doug’s spotting scope, and he pointed out that my breath had condensed and then frozen onto my hair. The sun, peeking above the horizon by now, wasn’t doing much to warm the air.
We started the walk back, stopping in a wooded area where we saw chickadees, woodpeckers, kinglets, and other hardy songbirds.
By the time we got back to the car, it was 11 degrees. But the count went on.