Every December for the past 27 years, Mark Council has trudged through the woods and counts every bird in sight. By now, he knows their habitat. And he’s developed and honed techniques to find the birds — making shushing noises into the trees.
Council is a volunteer field walker for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, which takes place across North America between mid-December. The numbers, compiled by about 70,000 volunteers, are used to track the health of bird populations. He walks a 15-mile diameter, which spreads across Woodstock, Plymouth and Bridgewater, with a handful of other volunteers. Audubon requires the same area to be covered every year in a 24-hour period. This year marks the 115th year Audubon count.
“It’s the two days out of the year where I dedicate myself exclusively to birdwatching,” said Council, a former Woodstock resident who now lives in Fairlee. “That’s really cool to be out in the woods and really keyed into what avian species are around.”
Council volunteers for two bird counts every year in Bridgewater and Hanover.
A couple weeks ago, Council’s group of volunteers braved the rainy day to search for birds at 7 a.m. with binoculars in hand. They counted ducks on the water and turkeys in fields — any bird they can find — until dark.
“As miserable as it was this morning, birds were moving around, which was great,” Council said.
It’s part of a Christmas tradition for Dean and Susan Greenberg, of Hartland, who walked the Woodstock area.
Dean Greenberg has been a birder since he was a teenager, when his high school teacher took his class for walks around his school in California.
“I think they’re amazing creatures,” he said. “You see a bird that big and you think, “How in God’s name do they live in this weather.’” Greenberg has been participating in the Audubon count for more than a decade.
The local bird count was started 40 years ago by bird enthusiast Ed Hack and Sally Laughlin, the former director of the Vermont Institute of Natural Science.
Even though Laughlin lives in Cambridge now, she still braves the winter roads to drive 100 miles to Woodstock every December. She’s watched birds adapt to changes in building structures surrounding the Woodstock green. Pigeons, for example, warm their toes on top of the courthouse, but they moved when the building went under renovation.
“It’s kind of amusing to watch that happen when you’re birding in the same place,” she said.
Due to family reasons, Laughlin missed the count for the first time in 40 years.
The volunteers found 39 different species and 2,986 individual birds this year in an unofficial tally, including two birds that have never been seen before during the local count — a hermit thrush and an Eastern Phoebe.
“It wasn’t an exceptional year,” Susan Greenberg said. “The weather wasn’t conducive with the rain.”
The longtime volunteers have noticed changes in bird population through the years. The Chickadee was a rare bird to see 40 years ago, but now it’s one of the most populous with 1,038 seen by counters this year in an unofficial tally.
Change in food supply and land has caused different migration patterns. Turkeys are also an increasingly common bird that wasn’t seen when the count first on Woodstock. Cardinals and the tufted titmouse were just beginning to come to the state. But the evening grosbeak, a one time common bird, is rarely seen now.
The local counters have spotted 86 different species since they began 40 years ago. They rely on numbers not just from volunteers who walk outside, but also by people who watch the birds from their bird feeders. They report the maximum number of a particular species they see at any one time.
Larry Roberts, 92, of South Woodstock, has been watching the bird feeder outside his window and participating on foot for more than 20 years.
“It’s something I’ve been doing all my life,” he said.
Roberts started birding as a child outside in the woods with his father.
Now, he enjoys the challenge of it.
“It’s a challenge to know what they are,” he said. “I’ve got pretty good hearing most of my life. I look to see what I’m hearing.”
The volunteers cook a turkey supper every year after counting birds all day.
Many of the participants said the count gives them something to look forward to in the winter.
“It’s a chance to meet lovely people,” Roberts said.
This article was first published in the December 31, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.