The inspiring (and very cold) history of the Orient Christmas Bird Count

Jane Kosovsky of Southold joined Rick Kedenburg to count birds on 60 acres of farmland near Southold on Saturday. The Orient Christmas Bird Count is an annual tradition dating back 114 years. (Credit: Charity Robey)

Exactly 114 years ago, farmer and amateur naturalist Roy Latham counted the birds he could see on his property in Orient from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on a 16-degree day with heavy snow in a strong northeast wind. It was the first Orient Christmas Bird Count. Last Saturday, in weather only slightly less daunting than what Latham endured, the Orient bird count took place again, as it has every year; an annual holiday tradition that’s nearly as old as Santa Claus — and requires a similar outfit. 

The Christmas Bird Count began as a response to the 19th-century sportsmen’s tradition of killing as many wild birds as possible to eat at Christmas. In 1900, Frank Chapman of the Audubon Society thought counting would be better than carnage, and a good method for gathering data on wild birds. The CBC has taken place every winter since, spreading from the Northeast to most of North America.

The modern version of the Orient CBC accounts for birds in a 15-mile circle, with Shelter Island at the center. The area includes land and sea; from the farmland and wooded shoreline of Southold, north as far as the eye can see across the Sound, as far east as Plum Island and south to Jessup Neck and the edge of Sag Harbor. Every year on a day between Dec. 15 and Jan. 5, hardy and well-padded bird enthusiasts venture out to count in their assigned section from sunrise to sunset.

The CBC is less important as a means of counting and tracking birds now that tools such as eBird, a database run by Cornell University, can be updated in real time by birders all over the world from their phones. The eBird app once recorded 9.5 million bird observations in a single month. Saturday’s Orient CBC numbers are not final, but it’s likely that somewhere around 20,000 birds from 110 species were counted that day by upwards of 60 citizen scientists.

“The Christmas bird count is an archaic, but lovely tradition,” said Jane Kosovsky of Southold, who began participating in the Orient count a few years back. Like most birders, she uses the computer-based tools and smartphone apps, but treasures the connection between the Christmas count and the natural history of the East End.

On bird count day, Ms. Kosovsky teamed up with Alexandra Ratay of Peconic to cover part of Southold. They were en route to Horton Point at first light when they spotted action near the road and pulled over to count. Thirty-four European starlings and one blue jay later, they hopped back in the car and passed six geese in someone’s front yard, but this time Kosovsky drove by without stopping. “We don’t count the ones without a heartbeat,” she said. The geese were six very convincing plywood lawn ornaments.

MaryLaura Lamont, an ornithologist, counted birds on Jessup Neck, a sliver of land that juts into Noyack Bay, a territory she took over from Barbara and Paul Stoutenburgh, along with the job of compiling the volunteers’ counts, in 1994. “I still do the Orient count, and always will as long as I can walk,” she said. Ms. Lamont was compiler of the Orient bird count for 20 years, until Patrick Hanly took over in 2014.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO
Southold resident Jane Kosovsky and Alexandra Ratay of Peconic count ducks at Horton’s Point in Southold Saturday during the Orient Christmas Bird Count. (Credit: Charity Robey)

Rick Kedenburg of Peconic admired the plumage of a very cold-looking junco perched on a fencepost on a 60-acre farm in Southold that teemed with bird life, even on a day when many birds were hunkered down. As the group of counters approached a pond, five enormous birds lifted into the air like a flight of wind-mangled umbrellas.

“Great blue herons!”

“How many, five?”

“I count five.”

There was snow, there was gloom, but the exhilaration of the counters held up as they completed their appointed rounds. When Ms. Ratay called the attention of her fellow birders to a great horned owl, three sets of field glasses swiveled into position as her urgent tone gave away her excitement. And that was before the owl hooted.

Nocturnal birders, known as owlers, could start counting after midnight, by listening for the bird’s distinctive calls. By 6:30 a.m., natural resource manager Mike Scheibel was counting birds in Shelter Island’s 2,000-acre Mashomack Preserve, and had already reported a screech owl and a great horned owl for the 2017 tally, even though sunrise was still an hour away.

At the end of the day, Tom Damiani, visitor center coordinator at Mashomack, still had his field glasses around his neck as he closed the gates to the parking area. The five volunteers assigned to cover Shelter Island had counted 58 species, from the screech owl accounted for before sunup, to the last cardinal hanging out at the bird feeder at sunset.

In 2015, Ms. Lamont gave a speech to the North Fork Audubon Society in which she read Roy Latham’s moving and eloquent account of the first Orient CBC in 1904. In his narrative, he reported seeing four European starlings, a very rare bird at the time. A century later, starlings are no longer rare, and counting birds on a cold snowy day in

December is a testament to the passion of the East End’s citizen scientists, and the reverence for the natural world they had then and still have today.