There is no such thing as a seagull.
Growing up in the city by the ocean, I believed there were three bird species: pigeons, sparrows and seagulls. Mostly pigeons.
But Rob Culbert, at the end of his 14-hour day last Saturday, set me straight. There is no seagull species; there are terns and gulls of infinite variety but no seagulls.
As the major domo of the annual Island Christmas bird count, Mr. Culbert should know. He’s been counting the rascals for more than 30 years and Saturday night more than 70 birders joined him at the Tropical restaurant in Vineyard Haven to tally up more than 50,000 sightings. The birders blanketed the Island between 5 a.m. and evening darkness.
Darkness happens in the morning too. At 5:30 a.m. I arose and prepared to meet Mr. Culbert and his cohorts at 6:30 a.m. in the winter parking lot at Long Point Wildlife Refuge in West Tisbury. Would have too, except in the darkness I didn’t find it until 6:45 a.m. The birders had left.
But I had my first sighting immediately, a late model gray Mercury Villager van with Massachusetts plates. Had to be them, who else would be out at this hour? However, no birders in sight and the orange line of day creeping up the horizon. What to do?
Do what you think the birders are doing seemed logical. I thought they were standing and waiting for birds, so I did. I thought they were watching for birds so I did that too. And I thought they’d be listening for bird calls so I listened.
Odd and satisfying things began to happen as I stood, watched and listened.
For one I stopping counting time. Then what seemed to be total silence was replaced by a dominating surf roar that receded as bird calls and chirps and trills began. And I heard the wind. The different sounds came into balance. It was sort of symphonic.
Then, watching the forest of scrub oaks for bird signs, what I was seeing began to change. Depth perception sharpened. The muddle of forest became discrete lace-like branch patterns. The beetlebungs that have always seemed like low, squat trees became purposeful, their branches flung wide to balance thick torqued trunks. They looked like they were scurrying in place.
Seeing birds became a bonus, which was good, because all I saw was one not-a-seagull and two crows. I think they were crows. They were black and big and had that irritating caw call. But I began to understand a little about what compels people to rise on a cold, dark Saturday to track mostly small creatures that are mostly hard to find.
Now I needed to know more about the people and that brought me to the Tropical at 5:30 at night where a stunning buffet, courtesy of the Felix Neck Wildlife Trust, was in place and being used by the band of birders. Turns out I was wrong about one thing. Birders don’t stand, they walk. All day. And they were hungry.
Planning the Christmas count is on the order of planning D-day. The entire Island is sectored and assigned to teams outfitted with species lists and iPods containing bona fide bird specie calls. Turns out I was wrong about the listening part too. You can also call the birds in so you can see them.
The counting began. Whistles and exclamations as teams verified northern shrike and oriole sightings, meaningless to me until Mr. Culbert explained what we learn about ourselves from birds. “There are two factors at work, global warming and the proliferation of bird feeders. We are definitely seeing more warmer climate species and more wintering over,” he said, adding that the Christmas count began in 1908 in Philadelphia as a backlash to a tradition of hunters blasting away at the skies on Christmas morning. The most dead birds won.
Today, there are thousands of bird counts held across the country. The most live birds wins. Asked about using predator bird calls, such as a screech owl, to bring prey birds in, Mr. Culbert explained that prey species often mob predators. In other words, a prey bird will confront its predator, hoping to scare the predator off or, if he becomes lunch, to sacrifice himself to strengthen his species. Hmm. Sunday morning cable television is full of programming based on that idea. Birds have been doing it for thousands, maybe millions, of years.
Maybe that’s part of what drew birder Peter Briggs from Shelburne, Vt., for his first Island bird count or has kept Danny Bryant at it for nearly 40 years.
A full range of birder species was observed at the Tropical. First-graders, graybeards, moms and dads and jocks and hotties and grandparents. Happily in community with each other and their avian neighbors. They already knew something I learned on Saturday.