Standing in the cold woods at 4 a.m., aka why I love the Christmas Bird Count

Part scavenger hunt, part excuse to be outside, the count means rising before dawn to look and listen for owls and a 12-hour marathon to see as many birds as we can.

On Sunday, I’ll be up at 3 a.m. to make the drive out to my assigned area as part of Chicago Ornithological Society’s Lisle-Arboretum Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Then I’ll walk around a locked gate to get into my corner of “Area 4,” at a gem of a spot in the Southwest Suburbs. I may or may not be allowed in the preserve at that hour, but I will take my chances if it means seeing or hearing Great Horned Owls, Eastern Screech Owls or possibly a Barred Owl.

A day looking for birds is a day well spent. That’s what possesses us to rise early and walk the wintry fields and woods of Chicagoland on a random day in December. It means rising before dawn to look and listen for owls and a 12-hour marathon to see as many birds as we can in our portion of the count circle.

The count is part scavenger hunt, part social event and a great excuse to spend a day outside. The 121-year-old tradition is simple and democratic—most anyone can participate and it is almost entirely run by volunteers. The state is carved up into approximately 85 count circles, diameters of 15 miles each, and there are around 2,000 nationally. The count circles typically are divided into smaller portions like Area 4 so as to make the scale manageable.

Hundreds of people will comb the Chicago region from mid-December through early January. The legendary Chicago lakefront count takes place smack-dab on Christmas Day. In pre-pandemic times, you’d know us as the cars with binoculars poking out the windows. My car has been stopped more than one time by an annoyed local wondering why we were slow-rolling through their neighborhood. This year we’ll be driving individually and staying distant while out in the field. The usually rollicking Countdown Dinner will need to be held via Zoom instead.

One of the things I like best about the count is that it isn’t competitive. But that doesn’t stop the Area 6 folks, staked out across the Des Plaines River from my group, from letting everyone know that they always finish with the most species. I like to point out that they also have one of the more biodiverse habitats in the state and bird feeders at places like Sagawau Environmental Learning Center. Apparently this hasn’t crossed the Area 6ers’ minds given their braggadoccio. But I digress.

All kidding aside, there’s a meaty scientific component, too, as the data provides crucial information about population trends, and particularly climate change. The landmark 2019 study by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the “Bring Back the Birds” effort utilize CBC data.

There’s also the variety that each year brings. Some years it is frigid, the ponds and lakes are frozen and there’s a thick layer of snow on the ground. Other years it’s mild, in the 50s and hardly a jacket is needed. Two years ago it was a thick morning fog. Since 2018, we’ve finally had Pileated Woodpeckers in our area, which has been a delight. One year we found 95 Dark-eyed Juncos in one small hillside parcel laden with goldenrod and snakeroot. Sleep-deprived and exhausted from 10 miles of hiking, our jokes turn to gas hawks (planes) and goshawks (a stunning and rare raptor).

The fun of the count is in the search and dealing with whatever conditions a Chicago December throws our way. No matter what happens, we are out there and so are the birds. That’s why we don’t mind waking up at 3 a.m. on a Sunday.

Tree removal at bird sanctuary has park goers scratching heads

Two weeks ago, I shared my piece on the call-to-action for a habitat addition at Montrose Beach Dunes. As if to underscore the importance of the site, this month’s edition of National Geographic features a photo taken just steps from the dunes on its cover.

Now comes word of trees being removed at nearby Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, home of the famed Magic Hedge. Montrose is more than a bird sanctuary to many folks, especially this year. The trees sometimes harbor elusive warblers and other species. Any sudden alteration of the habitat is rightfully met with alarm. Not to mention the confusion about whether the park is open or not.

I reached out to the Park District for a response and learned this is part of a project dating to five years ago. Here’s the response:

“The Chicago Park District recently received a grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to install an [Americans with Disabilities Act] ADA-accessible pathway at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, making it easier for a wider range of people to explore one of the most important birding destinations in Illinois. This funding supports the implementation of the 2015 Montrose Point Master Plan, which was developed through a detailed, stakeholder-involved process. The installation of this trail is the first step in a larger effort to better define the trail system at Montrose Point; future work will include refreshing some existing pathways and decommissioning paths that have fragmented the habitat and damaged native vegetation.

“Project work will begin this week with the removal of approximately 15 small trees, some of which are in poor condition. The construction of the asphalt-paved loop trail will occur in 2021 after spring migration and before fall migration.”

The focus on accessibility is laudable, and limiting the tangle of informal paths is a good thing. The biggest concern here may be whether the asphalt invites running, biking and rollerblading, which would certainly affect the character of the preserve and disturb birds. Here’s to hoping for continued communication about the project as that alone may assuage some concerns.


“The World of Monty and Rose” is a limited edition hand-drawn map by New World Cartography in Green Pond, S.C. This watercolor map is printed on heavy bond paper, and dimensions are 17.8” wide by 10” tall. We have just a handful remaining. Order yours today and receive it in time for holiday gift giving. 


TWiB Notes

Until this week, Rose of “Monty and Rose” fame hadn’t been seen on the Piping Plover wintering grounds. Then this week she was photographed at Anclote Key, off the Gulf Coast of Florida, along with one of her offspring, Nish. It’s still at least four months before the Piping Plovers return to the Midwest. [UPDATE: The word is this may not be Rose, as there is a plover with the same band combination at Anclote Key. More details as we have them.]

The surfeit of unusual species recently showing up in Channahon may be an example of the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect. The idea is that when a number of birdwatchers visit a place to see an unusual bird, they then discover more unusual birds…..There’s a lengthy feature in Openlands’ newsletter about the now permanent protection of North Park Village Nature Center on the city’s Northwest Side….Nature in Chicago has a nice compilation of local nature books as the holidays arrive.

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