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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.


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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  • Terry Bronson

    I had retired to New Hampshire in 2004 and had volunteered for my first Christmas Bird Count in the Town of Exeter in the southeastern corner of the state. The team of 3 of which I was a part had birded all morning and found a ho-hum collection of expected winter species in this mostly urban town with few wetlands and forests. At mid-day we arrived at a small industrial park on the northwest edge of town that backed up to a small swamp and that was bordered by trees. The swamp was mostly iced over and snow covered with many logs and stumps. I didn’t expect much, and I don’t remember finding many birds there, but among them was an always-rare-in-winter-in-NH Yellow-rumped Warbler. That was not the highlight, though. As I scanned the frozen surface of the swamp, I thought I saw movement in a clump of stumps and logs. I looked again, and saw the top of a stump move. As I got my binoculars in focus, I was flabbergasted to find a Snowy Owl, quite out of normal habitat in this forest-bordered swamp. It was, of course, a life bird, and it turned out to be the only Snowy seen in the count circle that year. That became the impetus that got me started in serious birding.

  • Thanks for sharing an account of that special day. It captures the magic and adventure of being a young birder in the pre-Internet age. For me, it’s hard to pick a best Christmas count but it’s probably a toss up between the 1995 La Selva count in Costa Rica and the 2002 Posada Amazonas count in the Peruvian Amazon.

    Both were beautiful days of exciting rainforest birding, that of La Selva highlighted by my lifer Bare-necked Umbrellabird, White-fronted Nunbird, Semiplumbeous Hawk, and Slaty-backed Forest-Falcon (one that called for much of the day and let me approach within 20 feet). The highlight of the Peruvian count was witnessing the spinning display of a pair of Slender-billed Kites from a canopy tower with three good birding friends. We were awestruck as they connected with outstretched talons and tumbled towards the roof of the rainforest, seperating just before they reached the greenery.

  • Alec Human

    I fondly remember that day!

  • Ted Floyd

    “What’s your favorite Christmas count memory? Please share in the comments below!”

    I’ve done about 100 CBCs, and the one that, after all these years, stands above the rest is Dec. 28, 1985. It’s not really because of the birds–although they were decent. Rather, it’s because of the venue and the method.

    The venue was my local patch at the time, Frick Park, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. And the method is key. Although I had recently obtained a driver’s license, I wouldn’t have dreamed of using a car for any of it. I wasn’t especially “green” at the time, but I did have a powerful aesthetic sense about the virtues of birding on foot.

    So, of course, I walked the several cold miles from my house to the park, in plenty of time for pre-dawn owling. And of course I walked 10+ miles during the course of 8 hours of daylight. And of course I walked back home.

    Today we say that greenbirding is good because it’s good politics, good ethics, and good health. I get that. But I wonder if we should be emphasizing something else: It’s good birding. It’s the best sort of birding. There’s something simultaneously cathartic and exhilarating about birding on foot. The capital-R Romantics knew all about that, and it’s a pity we’ve all but forgotten their example. At around 6:30 p.m. on count day in 1985, I felt something that was almost overwhelmingly (Romantically?) satisfying; it’s a feeling I’ve been trying to recapture, to emulate, with varying (but never full) measures of success, ever since.

    For additional perspective, see this piece on “Ten Tips for a Happy and Successful Christmas Bird Count”:

    See especially tips 2 and 6.

  • I could not agree more with Ted! My fondest CBC memories are from Hopewell, Virginia, in the 1970s and early 1980s, when we were lodged at a great old plantation house on the James River (I was permitted to sleep on the floor in front of the hearth, with the hunting dogs, as the youngest party member). An hour before dawn, we were dropped off along the river and told to be “out along the road somewhere” (no cell phones then) at noon, when we were picked up and then warmed with Brunswick stew (made with chicken rather than squirrel, I think) until it was time to beat more bushes until dark. About 10 miles on foot, zero by car. These days, the only count I do by foot is Back Bay, and it’s just 7 miles on foot (and with Morton’s Neuroma!). Green, or not green, you register far more birds – typically both individuals and species – when you get rid of the car, at least in many types of habitats.

  • Matt Brooks

    My favorite CBC is in southern Sonora, Mexico near the beautiful town of Alamos. It’s only a day’s drive from where I live in Tucson, AZ, but the count circle hosts many tropical species, so there is always something interesting to find. The count circle area covers a big chunk of Reserva Monte Mojino (REMM), a large conservation area protecting the headwaters of the Rio Cuchajaqui. It’s a remote count, requiring a 5 to 6-hour drive via rough dirt roads up into the mountains east of Alamos. Here’s a link to a rough map I put together of my group’s route ( The blue is the drive in and out, and the pink is the CBC hike route itself (hiking down Barranca Santa Barbara and Arroyo Verde). Twice now I’ve done the Arroyo Verde section of the count. My group of five hiked out with all of our gear, and had arguably the toughest route on one of the most remote and logistically challenging CBCs anywhere (in other words, it was tons of fun!). There are a couple grainy bird photos on my CBC count day submission on ebird, if you want to check them out (

    A striking and long-lasting memory was the sight of 6 male Eared Quetzals vocalizing in the same tree in Arroyo Verde on the 2010/2011 count. Not something many people have seen.

    The real reason this count is so great is that it is a chance to interact with Mexican biologists, birders, and reserve caretakers (and many folks from the States, as well) and realize that there is a growing interest in conservation and birds in Mexico. Kudos to Suzanne Winkler and David and Jen Mackay for all the work they put into organizing this great count.

    Matt Brooks
    WINGS Birding Tours

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