Down an unplowed path in West Tisbury behind an ox pen sits a house at the edge of the woods. The bitterly cold morning has not yet broken and the snow is glowing a pale moonlit blue, but inside the lights are on and the tenants are restless. Bob Woodruff is preparing his team for the 50th annual Martha’s Vineyard Christmas Bird Count, delayed this year until Jan. 5 by the weather.
He slaps an aerial photograph of the Island on his kitchen table and surveys it like a military general.
“This is all solid now so we’re going to be screwed for water birds,” he says, pointing to the frozen great ponds, which he has highlighted in pink.
Assembled before him is a crack squad of Island bird-watchers, including Wink Winkelman of Oak Bluffs and Craig Saunders of West Tisbury, but still Mr. Woodruff is nervous.
“People like Vern Laux have probably been out since midnight trying to get owls. He’s probably got four species of owl already,” he says referring to the legendary bird watcher and author who was once ABC World News’ person of the week in 2004 for spotting a red-footed falcon, a first for this hemisphere.
When I arrived at Mr. Woodruff’s house I asked as an amateur what I could expect from my first Christmas Bird Watch.
“It’s grueling and it’s dawn to dusk, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.
Today the trophy birds would be two tundra swans recently seen on the Island visiting from the arctic. Besides the occasional accidental species from afar though, most of the birds would be native and familiar to the men, with one exception.
“I don’t do sparrows,” warned Mr. Winkelman.
We took off down Middle Road and pulled over beside a house situated on a meadow. The air was crisp, clear and biting, and perched atop the skeleton of an oak and framed by a ghostly moon, blazed a magnificent cardinal — the first bird of the day. From behind me came a bizarre high-pitched squeaking noise.
“It’s an alarm call for birds,” said Mr. Woodruff putting his hand up to his mouth, “it sounds like a bird being ripped apart by a hawk.”
Almost immediately the calls paid off. “Yellow-bellied sapsucker!” said Mr. Saunders, gesturing to a beetlebung tree.
“Oh, good bird!” exclaimed Mr. Woodruff, riffling for his binoculars.
After a few dozen robins, blue jays, downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees and the prized sapsucker, the team moved on, pulling over to the side of the road every half-mile or so to investigate the surroundings. Inevitably, bemused cars would slow down and study the scene of four men at daybreak standing on the shoulder of the road staring excitedly into the woods.
Even more confused, however, were the pasturing oxen whose sovereignty the team would occasionally violate in pursuit of a rufous-sided towhee or golden-crowned kinglet, as we ducked under fences and hiked over properties like escaped convicts.
At Fulling Mill Brook Preserve in Chilmark, Mr. Winkelman was stopped in his tracks by the sight of a brilliantly striped sparrow. He pulled out a portable bird guide and thumbed through pages of virtually indistinguishable birds, “I don’t know how Bob knows these all apart.”
As the day drew, on the list of species got longer and spoke to the creative taxonomic powers of ornithologists: we saw yellow-shafted flickers, buffleheads and harlequin ducks, the last of which are known in some circles as “lords and ladies.”
In Chilmark Mr. Woodruff talked his way past a few horses on Rusty Walton’s property and climbed into the attic of a barn to try to summon a barn owl. We stood outside chuckling as a clamor of bangs and shouts echoed from within.
“No one’s home,” came a muffled cry.
Finally we came to Lucy Vincent Beach, a winter playground of eiders, cormorants and goldeneyes, where the ocean spends all winter silently devouring the southern side of the Island.
“I went to a wedding out there,” Mr. Woodruff said, pointing to an imaginary spot hovering above the sea, 50 yards out from the exposed cliffs.
In the distance a snow squall obscured Gay Head and the entire party was fairly chilled by then, but the weather had held out for the day.
“Last year it was 10 below,” said Mr. Saunders, “and your eyes were too frozen to see any birds. Even Bob could only do half a day.”
Retiring to Mr. Woodruff’s home at lunch, he displayed a pair of carved wooden buffleheads and goldeneyes atop a shelf.
“I can’t wait to do a harlequin,” he said.
Later that evening all 10 teams convened in the nature center of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary to relay their totals to Robert A. Culbert, who has served as the count compiler for the past 17 years.
As usual, Vernon Laux’s team was claiming an almost unbelievable amount of birds, in the thousands for some species and at least triple what other teams were submitting for most of the others.
A smattering of “oohs” and “ahs” met the more unusual figures, such as the announcement of a palm warbler on Long Point, a ruddy turnstone and the absence altogether of pine warblers, which was met with an audible gasp.
In all, an unofficial total of 115 species was reported including 7,596 common eiders, and, although Nantucket spotted 117 species, including the two coveted tundra swans, it was a solid outing overall for the Vineyard considering the weather and a shortage of teams.
“If it had kept up like this morning we might have gotten a few more,” said Mr. Culbert, “but the sun disappeared and so did the birds. Birds have a better ability to predict the forecast than we do. They have an internal national weather service, and if it isn’t accurate then they don’t survive.”
As the exhausted teams filed out of Felix Neck Mr. Culbert stayed behind to crunch his spreadsheet of reported totals as Mr. Woodruff sat nearby going through the figures.
“Our two sapsuckers were the only ones this year!” he beamed proudly.