American Birding Podcast



A Christmas Count Story

HeyerlysAs we drove away from Coos Bay with bellies full of rum cake and hearts full of birds, Jim Danzenbaker piped up from the driver’s seat:

“That was the most remarkable Christmas Bird Count dinner I’ve ever attended!”

High praise indeed from the jovial Danzenbaker, who, as a representative of Kowa Optics, habitually travels 200 days a year and has been there, done that, when it comes to counting birds. We’d tripped down to Coos Bay with mutual friends, the Heyerlys, to take part in Oregon’s premiere Christmas Bird Count.

I’m no stranger to Christmas counts myself. This year I signed up for five, which is pretty average. One year I did eight. I even compiled and executed the first-ever CBC in Antarctica several years back, on which I counted 270,885 Adélie Penguins in temperatures 20 degrees below zero. Last winter, I spent my Christmas slogging through a hot Costa Rican jungle and missed the CBC season entirely, so it’s good to be back in the rhythm.

The highlight of Oregon’s Coos Bay count is its after party, held in a willing local birder’s spacious living room. And the life of that party is undeniably a man named Tim Rodenkirk, affectionately dubbed “Roadkill” by my birding companions for his energetic habit of running down rare sightings—strictly figuratively, of course.

OregoncoastWhen we filed in at dusk after many hours spent staring at the ocean through a cold, foggy mist, Tim was already ensconced, juicing things up, bounding around the living room and arranging a table of chili and dessert trays. He lit up when he saw our group arrive. “Noah, Anne, Dan, Jim, how are you guys? Nice work on the Rock Sandpiper! That was a great bird!”

A moment later, another birder hauled in from the field. Tim lit up. “John, how are you? Nice work on the Palm Warbler! I told you it would be in that tree at dawn!”

Rodenkirk, a longtime BLM employee, lives in Coos Bay and organizes the CBC like a military operation, scouting for weeks beforehand to pin down hard-to-get species. Like most count compilers, he sends teams to scour productive areas. But, for Tim, this isn’t enough; because he’s done so much scouting and knows the birds so well, he assigns himself the role of designated “poacher” on count day, zipping around to make sure every rare bird gets ticked. He calls this Area 51.

“Weird things happen in Area 51,” he lectured, while keeping an eye on the rest of the room. “Like a few years back, when someone reported one Bushtit. Who ever sees just one?”

I asked Tim what time he had started birding that morning.

“Midnight,” he replied. “I went owling for seven hours before dawn. But I wasn’t the only one who got up early. Russ Namitz”—he gestured toward a guy sitting quietly across the room, tallying a count sheet—“also happened to look for Barred Owls at Simpson Park, not knowing I was there at the same time, and, we figured out later in the day, heard my tape and thought it was a real owl! Luckily I got one somewhere else!”

Russ was a bit of a celebrity, since he was just finishing up an ambitious Big Year in Oregon, and had already passed the existing record—owned by, appropriately enough, Tim. It was rumored that Russ had, a couple weeks before, stayed awake for 36 hours straight to chase a Snowy Owl and Mountain Plover, and that, after he’d missed Thanksgiving, his wife had delivered an ultimatum to be home for Christmas (I later saw that he’d posted some sightings from northeast Oregon, eight hours away, on Christmas Eve, so hope he made it home in time!). But he seemed to be getting a bit tired as the year drew to a close.

As we later went around the room of several dozen birders to introduce everyone, someone asked Russ how many miles he’d driven so far during his Oregon Big Year. “39,050,” he replied, with a slightly strained grin. “Next?”

Then Roadkill got right to business. “As many of you know,” he announced, “I always read through the list of species to reach a cumulative total. If you’ve seen a bird, shout out after I say its name. And if you’ve seen one that’s not on the list, keep it a secret until we reach the end. I’ll ask everyone, area by area, if they’ve found any rare birds. That’s the most exciting part!”

IMG_8075As we went through the list, it became clear that everyone had done a good job in the field. The toughies, like Glaucous Gull and Long-tailed Duck, had mostly squeaked through. And, when the time came to announce rare sightings, the list stretched longer and longer. When Tim tallied the results, we were all impressed: 159 species.

The all-time record for any Oregon CBC is 161, set a few years ago by the Coos Bay count. Tim scratched his head and looked anxious. Nobody had seen a Wood Duck, Savannah Sparrow, or Western Bluebird.

Oh well. The party broke up, and I found myself in a discussion with Jim Danzenbaker. “How do you pronounce Kowa, anyway?” I asked. “I owned a Kowa spotting scope for many years, but just realized that I might have been mispronouncing its name all my life.”

“You were,” said Jim, with a patient smile. “It’s koh-wuh. There’s no cow in Kowa.”

As I digested this revelation, Tim suddenly shouted, “ONE SIXTY! WE GOT ONE SIXTY!” The room quieted down, and he explained excitedly that a feeder-watcher had just reported, by phone, a rare Rufous Hummingbird at her feeder that afternoon. We were one short of the record.

People were stretched all over the room, moaning happily about the effects of vegetarian chili and heavy dessert. I reflected that this would go down as one of the most memorable Christmas countdowns of my life, up there with the time I watched two police officers walk into a countdown on another Oregon CBC and arrest one of its participants right before the totals were read. I preferred the chili and good birds.

“ONE SIXTY-ONE!” shouted Tim. “WE GOT ONE SIXTY-ONE!” He’d called a friend at home to ask, hopefully, if they’d seen a Savannah Sparrow during the day, and, miraculously, they had. Suddenly, we were tied for the all-time record.

I knew from legend that the first time the Coos Bay count reached 161 species, it had taken a shot in the dark. That year, my friends the Heyerlys had accompanied Tim after dinner to try for California Quail, which had been missed on the count, at 11 pm, in hopes of breaking the previous record of 160. Armed with tapes and flashlights, they had succeeded. Maybe, Tim now thought, he could again pull a similar trick.

After the rest of us had finally gone home, Tim and Russ headed into the night to try for Wood Ducks with iPods and spotlights. But even the best of modern technology couldn’t turn one up. Tim sent out an email at 10 pm, after 22 hours of birding, announcing that we’d tied the record. “I’m fading quick,” he wrote, “but we pretty much kicked butt.”

No kidding. Tim puts so much effort into organizing his annual Christmas Bird Count that’d he’d canceled it entirely the previous winter just to recover. His energy makes it one of the highlights of the year for many Oregon birders.

The next day, he sent out a short message. “Let’s make that 162,” read the subject line. The last feeder watcher had reported in with three Western Bluebirds. We had set the record after all.

Guess we’ll have to beat it next year!

Noah's heading to the Ecuadorian Amazon for the next three months. Follow along on his blog.