The Christmas Bird Count is one of the largest citizen-science endeavors, and anyone can join

A barred owl at Minnewaska in 2014. (photo by Will Dendis)

The trouble with December is that it’s such a busy time, with so many great opportunities of things to do to distract us from the short, cold, dark days surrounding the Winter Solstice, but with family obligations and the pressures of gift-giving and entertaining generally taking precedence over other potential choices. We cherish our holiday routines, in part because they have become our personal traditions. But don’t you wish, some years, that you could make time to do something different?

If you’re the kind whose eye is always drawn to the greeting card with the picture of the bright red cardinal starkly silhouetted against a snowy landscape, I know what you really want: to participate in the Christmas Bird Count at least once before you die. And once you’ve done it, you’ll probably want to go again, taking another generation or two of your kinfolk with you this time. New holiday traditions can indeed be formed — and they don’t necessarily have to involve buying stuff.

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The Audubon Society has been conducting the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for well over a century, so you needn’t worry that this is a foray into novelty that won’t stick around. Beginning Thursday, December 14 and running through Friday, January 5, the 118th annual count will be underway, with organized counts happening in prescribed circles all across the country (see https://audubon.maps.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=fadfb421e95f4949bde20c29a38228bd for a mind-boggling zoomable map).

Here’s the way it works: You sign up for a team that will be going out together on a specific date within the three-week time range. (If you love your first count so much that you can’t wait for next year, you can even sign up for more within your region!) Each count takes place within an established 15-mile-diameter circle, and is organized by a count compiler. Count volunteers dress appropriately for the day’s outdoor conditions and follow specified routes through their circle, counting every bird that they see or hear all day.

Note that this is not just a species tally with a checklist, but a true census: All birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle at that time. “The data collected by CBC participants over the past century and more have become one of only two large pools of information informing ornithologists and conservation biologists how the birds of the Americas are faring over time,” note the Audubon folks on their website at www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count. (You can tell that they’re real scientists by the fact that they know “data” is plural!)

Anyone who wants to join in this amazing mass citizen-science effort may do so, though you do need to make arrangements in advance with the local group leader. If you are a beginning birder, you will be able to join a group that includes at least one experienced birdwatcher. Then turn up in the designated place at the designated time on the designated day, wearing warm layers and waterproof boots. Bring binoculars if you own a pair. (And if you don’t, add them to your wish list for Santa.) There is no charge to participate, though donations to support the effort are certainly welcomed by the not-for-profit Audubon Society. It’s a nice way to get involved if you’re housebound or not feeling fit enough for an all-day expedition.

Ulster County plays host to two CBC circles each year. The first one, staged in the Mohonk Lake/Ashokan Reservoir count circle, happens Saturday, December 16. To sign up, contact Steve Chorvas ASAP at (845) 246-5900 or schorvas@gmail.com. In addition to meetup info, he’ll also provide details about a compilation get-together afterward, the procedure for submission of records and options for weather postponement. “Feeder-watchers in the count circle are also desired,” writes Chorvas.

The Ulster/Dutchess count circle has scheduled its expedition for Wednesday, December 27, so it’s a great way to trek off some of those Christmas cookies. Mark DeDea is your compiler and organizer; contact him at (845) 339-1277 or forsythnature@aol.com for your assignment and other details. Within this circle as well, you can report from the warmth of your own kitchen by making a commitment to watch your bird feeder all day long.