What can motivate a group of 43 individuals to snowshoe a collective 23 miles on roughly 20 inches of freshly powdered snow in mid-teen temperatures? Birds.
The 37th annual Isabella Christmas Bird Count in Lake County was Sunday, Dec. 30. Steve Wilson, an enthusiastic bird watcher, has been organizing the annual tromp in the woods to count birds since the start.
The Audubon Society's nationwide event, started 118 years ago, is one of the longest-running community science bird projects. It was created to replace the traditional Christmas Day bird shoot, which used to be a popular event.
"I think it's succeeded beyond their wildest expectations because now you can go on the national site and see well over 1,000 Christmas bird counts all over North America," Wilson said. "It's done in a 17-day window around Christmas."
For the Isabella area count, it consists of a 15-mile diameter circle, which has stayed constant since 1981. Birder watchers - or "birders" - of all levels and ages are encouraged to spend the day out in the woods listening and watching for as many birds as possible. The type of bird and number of each species is tracked, along with the time of day.
This year, the Isabella hike had a larger number of volunteers than usual with 43. Wilson said the average number is about 35, though he remembers hikes with about 10 volunteers at the start. He was expecting less volunteers this year due to the large snowfall prior to the count.
"But we recruit a heartier breed of birder. Ones who are willing to get out on snowshoes, skis and snowmobiles into the backcountry," Wilson said.
The radius of the count zone doesn't cover many plowed roads, especially with the fresh snow. Yet Wilson said counters were willing to break trails in the snow and covered a collective 23 miles around the radius. The calm wind and warmer than average temperatures made for idea bird-watching conditions.
However, Wilson called the day's count results "underwhelming."
"My partner and I snowshoed a little over 4 miles, breaking trail the whole way and it took us around 7 and a half hours," Wilson said. "Yet in three of those hours, we didn't count a single bird. We were like, 'What? Didn't they get the memo that it's the bird count day? Where the hell are they?'"
The semi-official total number of birds counted was 1,102, which is slightly up from the average of 1,059 birds. However when factoring in the high observer effort (how many birders, how many miles covered, and how many birds spotted per hour), Wilson estimated they'll be below average.
Of those 1,102 birds counted, 19 species were counted. The count has an average of 22 different species over the course of its history.
"We didn't have any 'Whoa, that's amazing' bird moments," Wilson said. "But we did have one bird that we've only recorded one time before: the great horned owl. It's not a particularly rare bird, but hard to find in the daytime."
Despite the underwhelming count numbers, Wilson is already looking forward to next year's event.
"Because it's a lot of fun. It's both a recreational activity and an excuse to get out and bird-watch all day in the middle of winter," Wilson said.