Sept/Oct 2017In Search of "The Things with Feathers"By Laura Ann Garren, Photos by Dan Garber

If you are looking for a new opportunity to give back during the holiday season, a Christmas bird count just might fit the bill.

Get up before sunrise, on a dreary December morning, and spend all day counting birds? Sounds interesting, so I respond to Clemson professor and ornithologist Drew Lanham's request for help with the annual Christmas Bird Count. Of course, when the alarm goes off at 5 a.m. I am less excited. But I gulp coffee, dress in layers until I look like a miniature hand grenade and proceed to the meeting point.

I meet Lanham and another birding enthusiast, Chris Clack, in the parking lot of a fast food joint. We pile into Lanham's truck, which is crammed with binoculars, scopes, vests and various other equipment, and drive off in search of owls. Our first stop is a dip in a two-lane back road that runs over a creek. A perfect place, one would think, for owls. Lanham confronts the dark woods and emits an eerie lament: the call of a barred owl. I fully expect an answer to his authentic impersonation, but no Strix varia answers. We load back into the vehicle and drive to the next spot.

The Christmas Bird Count was started in 1900 by ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, who was concerned about declining bird populations. This new tradition took off and continues to this day. All across North America, people brave frigid temperatures to collect data that indicate how birds are faring. According to the Audubon website, the count is a comprehensive study, the first of its kind, to predict how climate change may affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. More than half of these could be in trouble, and as many as 314 species may lose more than 50 percent of their ranges by the end of this century. In addition, some of America's most popular birds - such as the Northern bobwhite, the Eastern meadowlark, the little blue heron, the loggerhead shrike and the rufous hummingbird among others - have declined precipitously over the past four decades.

So, no parliament of owls, but whooo knows what the day will bring? As the sun lightens the cloud-veiled sky, we park in a meadow surrounded by woods. Lanham hands me a pair of binoculars and says, "Here, Laura. I'm going to open your eyes."

"I have a pair," I say, waving what I am beginning to suspect is an embarrassing specimen of field glasses. Lanham gives me a wilting look, so I take his binocs and toss mine in the truck. Did I mention that I have never been on a birding expedition?

We have been joined at this point by Paul Beardsley, who drove three hours from Sumter to participate. We bundle up and start tromping through the dew-drenched grass along the edge of the woods. Soon, the three men are pointing at silhouettes in the sky, calling out names of species. They all look the same to me, but I dutifully train my glasses on the flickering figures. Rather, I try - by the time I have one in my sights, it flits out of range. Very frustrating. Finally, a revelation - move the glasses in the direction the bird is flying! The men call out turkey vultures, starlings, bluebirds, robins and sparrows. I never knew how many different species of sparrows existed: at least thirty-five species in North America, Lanham tells me. No wonder I can't tell them apart.

After we finish our circuit of the field, we drive down a road in Fants Grove WMA to a pond. Lanham warns us he's never seen anything there during the count, so we are all surprised to find a gaggle of geese that includes a snow goose, rare in the Upstate. Also, a pair of mallards bobs and dabbles. We climb back in the truck and drive to our next destination, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) office off Cherry Road in Clemson. Lanham stands among the trees and makes sounds that evidently are irresistible to birds. "Pshh, pshh, pshh, pshh," he utters as chickadees, nuthatches and various - of course - sparrows approach, chirping and squeaking. Lanham presses his first two fingers together, places them against his lips and begins to suck, producing his own squeaking sound. The birds flutter and peep.

We walk down to the edge of the lake, which has shrunken dramatically as a result of a drought. Instead of a verdant shoreline of trees, a red clay shelf caves into a beach of red mud littered with the unsightly dreck usually covered by water. "What's that?" I ask, pointing at a speck I caught in my glasses. "A pied-billed grebe," Lanham answers. I feel inordinately proud for being the one to point it out. I'm also enjoying the entire experience more than I thought I would. Despite the temperature of 44 degrees, no sun, and a chill wind, I like contributing to something important: bird conservation. I also enjoy listening to the men talk about birding. I am getting quite an education just by listening.

Time wings by, and we realize we're hungry, so we repair back to the fast food joint for lunch. After a meal of what may loosely be called food, we get back to work, inspecting a marsh bisected by a two-lane and embraced by woods. We park along the narrow edge of the road and peer through a line of naked saplings into a convocation of cattails, their stalks brown and crackly. Lanham makes his pishing sounds again, and little brown jobs pop up out of the stalks to investigate before diving back under cover. Lanham makes the squeaking sound, pauses, then calls out excitedly, "Look! A barred owl!" I turn in time to see the owl flapping silently back into the woods, no doubt miffed that his potential meal turned out to be a trick. We humans, on the other hand, are thrilled that we got our owl sighting - midday, at that.

Our next thrill comes soon afterward, as we are driving. We pass a pond that looks promising, so we stop to spy. Then Lanham hollers, "Shrike!" Paul Beardsley soon has it in his sights, but I can't get a line on it. The bird keeps dropping out of its tree, then flying back up again. Finally, I see it: a mockingbird-sized, slate-gray bird wearing a black mask that makes him look like he's up to no good. The men seem extremely happy, and their mood is infectious. After admiring the little bandit for a while, we move on.

One of the spots in our zone is a place I walk frequently, a university experimental farm with meadows verged by woods and bisected by a stream. Multiple habitats occupied by multiple species of birds, but I have bragged repeatedly about the turkeys I see every time I walk there. I also confidently predict that we will spot at least two raptors that are always hovering close by or perched on a fence. And there they are - a red-shouldered hawk and a kestrel. But as we continue our survey, no turkeys. I begin to worry that, today of all days, they will be incognito.

My brooding is interrupted by the appearance of a palm warbler, which seems to excite the men. The little bird is rather endearing, with a yellow rump that it flashes at us as it pumps its tail and hops along the ground. We reload into the truck and motor on. Suddenly, a movement in the woods catches my eye: turkeys! We point our glasses at the small group, maybe eight, consisting of jakes. A sense of satisfaction and relief flood me; but as we crest a hill a little farther along, I spot an even larger rafter of gobblers grazing in a field. We count thirty-five.

We make our way back to the SCDNR office to take another look at the lake. This time we are rewarded with two rafts of ducks: ruddys and buffleheads. Also, two common loons and a belted kingfisher. As dusk swallows the scenery, we wind down and start tallying: hundreds of birds representing at least sixty-three species.

The day ends with celebratory drinks and dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Other birders who covered other zones join us with their tallies, and everyone talks animatedly about what they saw. I feel a warm sense of camaraderie and purpose. I contributed to an important cause while working with a group of kindreds, as Lanham calls us. I also find out that birding is addictive as I make plans to join the local bird club. I can think of worse ways to spend my time than getting up before the sun, hoping to find the things with feathers.


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