Fayette County

Lexington birdwatchers participate in nationwide Audubon Society count

Birders Bernice Wood, left, Marie Sutton and Jim Williams scoured the landscape of Ramsey Farm in Jessamine County for sights or sounds of birds. The trio were keeping a tally for the annual Audubon Society of Kentucky Christmas Bird Count.
Birders Bernice Wood, left, Marie Sutton and Jim Williams scoured the landscape of Ramsey Farm in Jessamine County for sights or sounds of birds. The trio were keeping a tally for the annual Audubon Society of Kentucky Christmas Bird Count. Herald-Leader

Snow trimmed the grass by the roadsides just after daylight Saturday, and a thin film of ice coated the big pond at Ramsey Farm in Jessamine County.

Marie Sutton, Bernice Wood and Jim Williams ignored the cold — or tried to — keeping their binoculars trained on the pond, where Canada geese floated serenely and little northern shoveller ducks swam in quick, nervous circles.

Williams, Wood and Sutton eventually counted about 70 birds on the pond at Ramsey Farm, just one of their stops Saturday as the National Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count got started. The three Lexington residents were among about 40 avid birders taking part in the survey.

It's actually a nationwide extravaganza of bird counting that goes on for more than two weeks each December, when Audubon Society members in every state go out to take a tally of all the bird species in their respective areas. Lexington's first such count was in 1900.

In the Lexington area, the search is done in a 15-mile circle centered at East Hickman Baptist Church on Tates Creek Road.

Sometimes the weather is good. Sometimes, like Saturday, it's pretty miserable. But the bird count must go on.

Results from all of the individual counts wind up at Audubon's national headquarters, where the numbers are crunched to help provide new information about the size and health of the nation's bird population.

Wood, Sutton and Williams are veterans of the annual counts. They say, by the way, that you don't actually have to see a bird to count it. If you recognize a bird's song, it can go into the final tally.

Most of the time, they count by sight. Of course, you must be careful not to count the same bird twice.

This can become somewhat tedious.

Wood, Sutton and Williams spent nearly half an hour watching a distant tree, patiently waiting for several tiny birds hopping around its branches to move into a position where they could be identified. The counters talked in hushed tones.

"That might be a Carolina chickadee. Definitely."

"I think there's a titmouse."

"I'm pretty sure that's a junco over there."

Eventually, they identified some examples of all three, with a downy woodpecker thrown in.

"You can see how exciting this all is," Williams quipped. "But it really is fun when you see something you didn't expect."

There was some excitement about an hour later, when the counters spied a northern harrier along a hilltop on Ramsey Farm. They'd never seen one there before.

Williams, Wood and Sutton have been birdwatchers for decades.

Sutton admitted that she knew almost nothing about birds until she and her husband moved to a subdivision in Dayton, Ohio, in the late 1960s. There were large trees, and Sutton noticed some tiny birds in their branches. She learned that they were wood warblers and became fascinated.

"I got a bird book, and literally started at page one. That's how much I knew," Sutton said. "You just get hooked, you know."

Later on, Sutton hooked Bernice Wood, a neighbor. They've been birding together ever since.

After spending all day Saturday counting birds, Wood, Williams and Sutton were to join other Christmas bird counters at a potluck supper Saturday night to turn in their totals.

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