Thursday, January 13, 2011

Out for the Count

On December 26, I once again participated in my area Christmas Bird Count (CBC). For years, it had been a tradition for me and my mom on the Sunday before the new year. The two of us, often accompanied by my dad, daughter Callie, or another friend, would load into the car, well equipped with the map of our assigned territory, thermos of coffee, binoculars, field guide, checklist, and plenty of snacks. We would spend hours being the ultimate "Sunday drivers"--the car moving way below the speed limit (often halfway on the shoulder), eyes peeled and constantly surveying both sides of the road in periods of concentrated silence. Then with a whoop, we'd pull over at the sight of anything flying, landing, hopping, soaring, pecking, or preening. Mom taught me to appreciate birds, but in her later years, she deferred to me for declaring the ID. When we weren't sure, she would call out field marks while I flipped through the book, made a decision, and marked the list. Then we were off again.

Each year the count day was a little different, but always special. There was the year we saw a shrike at the top of a thorny tree. In our haste to confirm the ID, Mom's friend Jean dropped the guide book, which then fell open on her lap to the exact page we needed. One rather dismal year, in an icy sleet, we saw almost no birds at all until we finally pulled up close to a dairy farm just to log a few House Sparrows. In subsequent years, Dad joined in and became famous for his micro-naps in the back seat, only to pop up and with renewed enthusiasm ask, "What'd I miss? What'd I miss?". Coffee was shared and spilled and leftover holiday cookies passed around. Mom was particularly good at balancing a cutting board on her knees, deftly cutting and distributing slices of sharp Wisconsin cheddar and crisp apple.

This year Dad, Callie and I drove the country roads of our CBC territory without my mom. Mom died last April during the peak of spring migration. I've been able to reflect that over the years, some of the best times she and I shared together were spent observing birds. We delighted in calling each other to report noteworthy visitors to our yards and feeders, or pointing out birds as we paddled a Wisconsin river. She was there to discover a dozen Short-eared Owls in a field near my house; we marveled at 10 bluebirds that roosted together in an old Peterson box in my prairie a few winters ago.  I find joy in birdwatching largely because, way back when, she showed me how to delight in the endeavor.  What a gift.

Nina Cheney
Eagle Optics Staff
Binoculars: Bring them.  See what they bring you.

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