Counting, not cooking, birds in Kent Survey: Volunteers identified 114 species of birds on the Eastern Shore for the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas count.

December 23, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN -- David Holmes can find a bird anywhere, even in midsentence.

"This is the West Fork of Langford Creek and -- ooh, there's an eagle," he said yesterday at the annual Christmas Bird Count in Kent County, as he looked across a glittering creek edged with snow and filled with geese.

So it went for much of the day, as he counted ducks, geese, vultures, swamp sparrows, bluebirds, herons, pigeons and hundreds more.

Holmes, a music teacher and part-time ornithologist who drove to Kent County from his home in Columbia, was one of 22 bird-watchers taking part in the annual survey.

Yesterday's count in Kent began with six volunteers counting owls at 3 a.m. and ended at dark with a "Tally Rally" at the local library, where results were counted and recorded.

Most years, volunteers say, they log from 100 to 120 species of birds. This year was no exception, with 114 species counted yesterday.

The Kent count began in 1957. It is one of 23 held in Maryland as part of the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.

Across America, Canada, in parts of South and Central America, Bermuda, the West Indies and the Pacific islands, volunteers like Holmes identify and count every bird they see in a designated circle.

All circles are the same size -- they have a diameter of 15 miles. The Christmas count must take place during a single calendar day between Dec. 20 and Jan. 5, and volunteers walk or drive as much of the circle as they can during the time.

Yesterday's bird counters in Kent included two former hunters.

"The reason I quit hunting was, we'd go to the trouble and expense to get a rig and a license and then never even fire your gun," said Paul Tolson, the Kent count's official compiler who will send the data to Audubon. "The hunting was so bad. My brother got me interested in bird-watching."

Tolson, a former waterman and now a mechanic, has turned a lifelong interest in waterfowl into an avocation of bird-watching. He can easily count what looks to an untrained observer like millions of geese, naming the odd duck that turns up in the flock. A glance was all he needed to recognize the birds that skittered and settled on the Chester River yesterday afternoon.

Tolson's counting began at 3 a.m. when he went to the woods to listen and look for owls. "I only saw one -- a barn owl," he said. "The rest are just 'heard' owls' " -- owls whose calls he identified in the dark.

But there were plenty of those.

"I heard a dozen screech owls, four great horned owls and some barred owls -- they're the ones that say, 'Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?' "

Although he arrived at bird-watching by a different route than Holmes, who has been a bird-watcher since his childhood in Topeka, Kan., Tolson's enthusiasm is just as infectious.

"Those are coots -- they're fun to watch. No, not fun -- relaxing," he says with a smile, pointing to a line of waterfowl on the horizon.

Chilly weather and a brisk wind off the rivers and ponds in the Kent circle did nothing to dampen the counters' apparent energy for their task. At Chesapeake Farms Project, a 3,300-acre farm and wildlife refuge near Chestertown that is owned by DuPont, Holmes and several other volunteers tramped through cold, wet fields and ditches laced with ice. They watched, they counted and they "spished" -- the birder's term for a sort of "shhhhh" sound they make to flush birds from trees, brush and hedgerows.

"It makes them curious," Holmes explained between spishes.

The Audubon Society says its count is the longest-running ornithological database known. It began 97 years ago when conservationist Frank M. Chapman organized 25 conservation groups in the Northeast to protest the Christmas tradition of the "side hunt," where teams of hunters competed to see which could shoot the most birds on Christmas Day.

Chapman and his fellow protesters counted all the birds they saw on Christmas 1900, and conservationists have been counting at Christmastime ever since. The count has grown steadily over the years, according to Audubon. This year, more than 45,000 volunteers are expected to participate.

Data accumulated during the count are sent to Audubon headquarters in New York, and published in a book-sized edition of the society's Field Notes magazine. Count results also become part of the database of the National Biological Service, where they are used to help study and analyze early-winter bird distribution.

But the book isn't what draws volunteers such as Tolson and Holmes into cold winds and wet fields to "spish" and count.

"Obviously," Holmes said. "Those of us who do this find it wonderful fun."

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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