CHAPEL HILL — Will Cook scanned the morning sky with his binoculars.
“Some more redwing blackbirds flying overhead – so that makes 55 total,” he said.
Katherine Gura pointed west. “Two blue jays over there,” she said. Cook turned, looking with binoculars out over the frost-whitened driving range at Finley Golf Course.
“Look at that!” he shouted. “It’s a bald eagle! First time I’ve ever seen one here!”
Cook and Gura were among about 50 bird enthusiasts out in the chilly dawn Sunday, conducting Chapel Hill’s annual Christmas Bird Count, a tradition in “citizen science” held every year since 1926, Cook said. Based on past experience, Cook and Gura could expect to have counted around 60 species – maybe 1,200 birds in all.
“We’re keeping up tradition and tracking changes in local bird populations,” Cook said.
Chapel Hill’s Christmas Bird Count is part of an annual program sponsored by the National Audubon Society and organized through local Audubon chapters and bird clubs. Results, like those from several other seasonal counts, go into national databases for scientists’ research and policy decisions by authorities such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
For Sunday’s count, birders covered a circular area of more than 176 square miles, centered on the intersection of Franklin and Columbia streets in downtown Chapel Hill. That area was divided up into 32 zones with a team assigned to each.
Cook, the count coordinator, and Gura were counting at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve, a 367-acre sanctuary along Morgan Creek, next to Finley Golf Course and the N.C. Botanical Garden. The preserve is the most popular birding spot in Chapel Hill, according to Cook, offering a variety of habitats, within and around it: hardwood and pine forest, marsh, open water and formerly cultivated land going back to the wild.
Crunching frosted grass, they walked away from the golf course and into an overgrown field beside the creek where vines and undergrowth made a tangle below bare trees. Across the creek, steam rose from a wastewater plant.
“Birds go to a lot of places that don’t look too good,” Cook said. “Sewage plants and landfills.”
Gura spotted a red-shouldered hawk while Cook made a “pisshh, pisshh” sound (which birders call “pishing”) to attract avian attention. By 8 a.m. they had counted 36 species including bluebirds, woodcocks, goldfinches, kingfishers, flickers, cardinals and blue jays.
Gura is a professional ornithologist, but she works on raptors such as owls and eagles for a nonprofit agency in Wyoming. She was in Chapel Hill for a family visit over the holidays. Cook is a botanist at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Both said they were introduced to birding by enthusiast parents.
“It seemed like a fun thing to do,” said Cook. “I don’t get paid to do this.”
Through the morning, Gura and Cook hiked a two-mile loop through the reserve. Brush rustled as birds skittered about out of sight, and all around the air was full of chirps, warbles, tweets, caws and less-describable sounds.
“Sometimes, you don’t know which way to look,” Cook said. By midday, their count was up to 55 species and another group, working in the wetlands off N.C. 54, had spotted white wing crossbills, which had never before been seen in a Chapel Hill Christmas count. That group had also seen a Virginia rail, which Cook thought was another first.
“Amazing,” he said. “One party one day found two species in the history that goes back to 1926. That’s what keeps spurring interest.”