If you asked birders when their favorite time of the year to go birding is, they will likely say spring or fall migration, or perhaps the summer season when most birds are in their finest form and singing beautiful warbling songs. Very few birders will answer with "winter." Nevertheless, winter is the time when one of the largest organized bird counts takes place--the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Every year thousands of birders head to their local birding spots to scour the bushes and roadsides for winter birds. What draws all of these birders (especially those in the northern regions) out into the frigid temperatures? Perhaps it is the chance to meet up with other birders, an excuse to go birding in a normally "slow" season, or is it something else entirely?
Over the past several years, I have helped out with two Christmas counts in the area. For me, they each have a unique social aspect. The Lehigh Valley Christmas Bird County is a gathering of birder friends that I have known for many years. My mom has always helped with that count as well, so it is an opportunity to bird with her. At the end of that count, the Lehigh Valley Audubon Society hosts a count-off dinner where teams meet to share their checklists and experiences from the day while socializing and enjoying warm food in a heated building (all of which feel extremely nice after a day of winter birding). The second count I do is the Wild Creek-Little Gap count, which I have done with my dad for the past few years. Although it is only the two of us and not a big group, we always have fun searching for those elusive Horned Larks out in the frozen corn fields (we finally got one this year, but in a wheat field... guess we were looking in the wrong places) or counting ducks and geese gathered at a nearby lake.
In Pennsylvania, winter is a slow time for birding. After being outside several times today, I managed to find 23 species in the yard, but back in May I was able to find 77 species in a few hours in the same area! The scarcity of birds and unpleasant weather during the winter often keep birders indoors; they would rather watch the birds that come to the feeders than go out and search for birds like they would in the warmer months. The Christmas count manages to drag these birders outside; it gives them an reason for enduring the cold, wind, birdlessness, and frozen precipitation. Perhaps the knowledge that other people are out of their minds and are doing the same thing encourages the otherwise lazy birders to step out the door.
Birding may be slow, but maybe this is the factor that draws the birders to a Christmas Bird Count. Instead of finding warblers dripping off the trees, winter birding often requires a bit more searching through brush and walking through fields to get a reasonable percentage of the present bird species checked off the list. Personally, this added challenge is extremely exciting and helps me reassure myself that winter birding is a fun activity as I am putting on my wool socks at some horrid hour of the morning before an owling trek. Most normal people will probably never understand, but there is nothing like the rush that I feel when that emberizid finally responds to my distressed pishing or when I manage to discern the distant white speck as a raptor and not one of the local plastic bags.
Because birds can be so hard to find during the winter, when a rarity does show up on the Christmas Bird Count it is cause for celebration. Every year a few rarities show up for the count. A few years ago, during a major winter finch irruption winter, I found a big flock of Common Redpolls. Mixed in with the Commons, an uncommon species in its own right, was a single Hoary Redpoll, a rare visitor from the north that only shows up in the occasional winter season. Sometimes birds that are not even true rarities, but rather simply uncommonly encountered species, are exciting as well.
So why do birders go out and look for birds in the freezing weather? Maybe it's because of the social aspect. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together. Possibly it is a reason to go birding when birders would normally be enjoying the warmth of a heated building but are beginning to feel guilty about those few birds missing from their county year lists. Perhaps we go birding in the winter for that added excitement of finding an unusual species in a time when birds are generally scarce. Maybe it is a combination of all of the above.
Or maybe birders are just crazy.