Hard-core birders head into the cold rain to take part in the 103rd Christmas Bird Count
Binoculars in hand, John Riutta peers into a gray sky and waits.
Not one tweet. Not a feather in sight.
And then, at first light, the bushtits start zipping from tree to tree. But how many? They are tiny, and it is still dark. And now there's a chickadee among them. You can hear the telltale song: Chickadee-dee-dee, chickadee-dee-dee. But is it chestnut-backed or black-capped?
And never mind the tweety birds Ñ get a load of that hawk! Northern harrier. And here come the geese. Another flock, and another. Wait, did we count those honkers yet? And what about those over there?
It's the 103rd annual Christmas Bird Count, a determined effort to record every living thing with feathers Ñ from the seemingly insignificant ball of fluff known as the bushtit to that mightiest of hunter-scavengers, the bald eagle.
Tally it up, and you've got the nation's largest and longest running 'citizen-science' wildlife survey: Fifty thousand Americans took part in the ritual last year, counting more than 50 million birds.
For the dozen rain gear-clad birders out to cover a 15-mile-wide circle around Sauvie Island, the day's goal is both simple and impossible: Find every bird and count it.
'I can't tell you why. Probably because we're all nuts,' quips Mary Anne Sohlstrom, president of the group Oregon Field Ornithologists. 'It's an odd bunch of people that do Christmas Bird Counts. We'll drive miles to go do something that most people wouldn't dream of doing.
'But I'm a native Oregonian. I'm used to the rain. A lot of camaraderie and competition goes into the counts. É But basically it's just one more excuse to get out there and look for birds.'
The birders fan out from the Sauvie Island bridge in darkness, their vehicles packed with binoculars, spotting scopes, tripods, dry clothes, snacks, bird books, birdsong recordings and lists of the 158 species that have been identified here on past surveys.
Now they're out there scribbling into soggy notebooks and trying to determine whether the gulls overhead are western gulls, glaucous gulls, glaucous-winged gulls or western glaucous-winged gulls.
No easy task
Counting is about as basic as science gets. But there is nothing simple about accurately recording every bird you see in a day. It requires serious concentration, a photographic memory, sophisticated optics, an ear for melodies and a highly obsessive appreciation of the small details that add up to biodiversity.
The Sauvie Island count is one of 47 surveys that take place each year in Oregon between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Another count in Washington County will be held Saturday, and five more are scheduled in and around Portland on Dec. 28.
Sohlstrom will lead the counting in Forest Grove this weekend for her 10th year. She caught the birding bug 35 years ago as a student at Portland's Outdoor School. Her 'life list' Ñ birds she's identified, mostly in Oregon Ñ includes more than 450 species.
Robert Lockett, a 40-year birding veteran who will lead the Portland area counts Dec. 28, has more than 2,000 species on his life list. That's because he plans all his vacations around birding, traveling to places such as Kenya and Morocco in search of new species.
Each year, Sohlstrom, Lockett and Sauvie Island count leader Karen Bachman send their data to the Cornell University Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. The numbers help scientists gauge the health of different species, analyze migration routes and identify environmental problems.
Recent bird-count numbers have documented a loss of ground-nesting birds such as western meadowlarks and horned larks. Not long ago, nighthawks were common in Portland. Not anymore. Urban development and suburban sprawl have taken their toll, as have the clever, nest-robbing urban crows that have come to dominate.
On the bright side, last year's Sauvie Island counters found record numbers of 10 species: mallard ducks, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, Anna's hummingbirds, Costa's hummingbirds, brown creepers, Bewick's wrens, marsh wrens, northern mockingbirds and white-throated sparrows.
Birders take particular pride in the return of the peregrine falcons and bald eagles. Both populations plummeted after World War II because the commonly used pesticide DDT damaged the shells of their eggs. The birds might have gone extinct had it not been for a ban on DDT in the United States in 1972 and a 30-year conservation effort.
In 1978 there were 57 pairs of breeding bald eagles in Oregon. Today there are 441.
Thirty years ago, there were no nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in Oregon. Today there are 65.
From killing to tallying
More than a century ago, before the Christmas Bird Count, there was the Christmas Sidehunt. Men would shoot as many birds as they could in a day. The team with the most corpses won.
The ornithologist Frank Chapman began to change this on Christmas Day 1900, suggesting that people count birds rather than kill them.
Times have changed. Riutta, for example, works for the Beaverton-based optics company Leupold & Stevens Inc. as representative to the birding market, which is bigger than those for hunting and fishing combined, according to the the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Riutta has some great gear, including a new hand-held spotting scope that weighs just 32 ounces and magnifies images by up to 40 times. But the best scope in the world won't help you when it's raining sideways and the birds are hiding.
On Sauvie Island, the numbers fade after lunch, and the cold starts to sink in.
Then in one twittering burst the forest comes alive. It's a swarm of 'chicklets,' chickadees and kinglets foraging together. Among them is a small olive bird not like the others: a Hutton's vireo. Although this bird seems no more attractive than the others, for Riutta it's a gem because he's never seen one before.
The birder's term for such a creature: a 'life bird.'
Forest Grove bird-count participants will meet at 7 a.m. Saturday at Elmer's Pancake House, 390 S.W. Adams Ave., Hillsboro. Five other bird counts will be held in Portland on Saturday, Dec. 28. To participate, visit the Audubon Society of Portland's Web site at www.audubonportland.org/birds/xmas.html.