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The Best Christmas Count

Sunday, December 18, 1977. The week had started out dreadfully cold in the Chicago area. It was -12° during count week, and there was a good amount of snow on the ground. In the days running up to the count, a warm front pushed in, bringing some more snow with it, and temperatures that climbed into the 40s.

I was 14, and this was my second Christmas Count, ever. My friend Alan picked me up in the black hours of early morning, and we made the hour-long drive to the Morton Arboretum without incident … well, with one incident, actually.

The day before had been well above freezing, but with all that snow still on the ground, it got quite cold at night. As we came down a gentle hill on Route 53 at some unheard-of hour of the morning, Alan's trusty Datsun B210 hatchback decided to do some figure skating. He completely lost control of the car, and we wound up sailing through a red light at a big intersection, backwards. Luckily, even the cops were safely snugged in their beds that early on the Sunday morning before Christmas.

Okay, so except for that, it was a pretty sleepy ride. We did some owling, and then just after dawn, met the rest of the counters at the visitor's center parking lot to get handed our assignments for the day. The Lisle Arboretum Count, started in 1937, is one of the oldest, and some of the people participating have done so for decades. They get the best areas assigned to them. Places with intriguing names like "Hemlock Hill" or "Thornhill"—two spots locally famous for winter finches and other good birds. And December of 1977 was shaping up to be a good finch year.

I got assigned to the far east side, which is almost completely monotonous deciduous forest. My day would be relegated to counting Chickadees, Nuthatches, Blue Jays, and maybe a Brown Creeper. So be it. I was out birding.

The 1,700-acre arboretum has a 9 mile driving loop through the grounds. I was to be dropped off on one side of the loop, where I would make my way cross-country to a parking lot on the other side. I was assured that someone would then pick me up, and take me to my next assignment.

I've mentioned in other posts that I didn't come from a family of means … so, well, let me take a moment to describe my winter gear that day.

On my feet were heavy cotton duck "snow boots", with 3 pairs of cotton socks inside. Layer one was cotton "waffle-knit" long underwear. My pants were heavy brown corduroy (this was the 70s, after all). Up top I had a heavy polyester sweater, and a reversible "snorkel" parka (navy and blaze orange) … topped off with a polyester knit cap. The entire ensemble cost $22 at Wieboldt's.

The Chicago area had seen some record cold and heavy snowfall during the week prior, but the morning of the count, temperatures were headed well into the 40s. My route took me through knee-to-waist-high snow, and I think I made 50 yards before I was soaked to the skin. But I was 14. 14-year-olds are indestructible. Unstoppable, even.

Trudge trudge trudge. Stop. Look. Listen. Trudge trudge trudge. Stop. Mark down a chickadee. Trudge trudge trudge.

I had made it to the midway point and was faced with an open area and a hill. I was approaching the hill from the south, and the snow drifts were up to my pubescent chest. I plowed into the first one, determined to go straight up the hill, and I was stopped dead. The snow was so full of water, so heavy, that when I compressed it, it turned into a wall.

I stood thinking for a moment and catching my breath…

…when a bird call that I had never heard before came tinkling out of the heavens. Sweet, soft little notes. I looked up, and out of the blue sky a flock of birds appeared and landed in the trees crowning the hill.

I put my binoculars on them and, even though I had never seen one before, I knew instantly what they were: Pine Grosbeaks!

I counted. 53 of them!!

The trees at the top of the hill were a collection of Ash, and they happily settled in and began stuffing their cute little rosy and gray faces on the millions of dangling seeds.

I knew this was a good bird, but I didn't really know just how good. I continued on my route, and eventually made my way back to the loop road where I found no one waiting for me. So, I began walking back toward the visitor's center. Soon Alan came along and picked me up, and on the short drive to lunch I told him about my birds.

The little cafe at the visitor's center was full of bird-counters, and I was telling everyone there about my 53 Pine Grosbeaks. Some smiled. Some asked where. Some couldn't be bothered with the rantings of a kid who found a flock of Purple Finches (in the 1970s, House Finches would have been even more rare than Pine Grosbeaks).

A couple people decided that it was worth checking on, so after lunch I took them out to show them. We followed the trail I had plowed, and when we got to the hill discovered that the flock had grown to 80 birds.

And pandemonium ensued.

Within an hour or so, everyone had forsaken their assignments and was making it over to "Ash Hill". They needn't have worried. The flock stayed for nearly a month, and remains to this day the largest gathering of Pine Grosbeaks ever recorded in Illinois. It was also the last flock of any size of this species ever recorded in the state. There have been 15 records—28 individual birds—in the 35 years since the winter of 1977.

The countdown dinner was held that evening in a banquet hall (now a landmark) called The Sabre Room. Everyone was there … and for one night, I was a hero. It was the best Christmas Count, and maybe the best Christmas, ever.

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What's your favorite Christmas count memory? Please share in the comments below!

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

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