Birds of a Feather
The predawn December light is gray and hazy as Kathleen “Betty” Anderson, 85, steers her car down an icy road in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Middleborough. In the passenger seat, her grandson, Andrew Brissette, now 21, scans the scenery—a mix of stubbled fields, frozen marshes, and housing developments in this once-rural area.
They’re in the final stretch of the three-week Christmas Bird Count (CBC), held each December so that volunteers can survey and tally winter bird populations. Dating back to 1900, the CBC is the longest-running citizen science project nationwide, attracting more than 50,000 participants and covering all 50 states as well as foreign countries. The data collected from each count and submitted to National Audubon are invaluable to mapping winter bird distribution and identifying populations trends, such as declines in common bird species—like evening grosbeaks, whose numbers have dropped by 78 percent over the past 40 years—as well as northward shifts in many birds’ ranges during recent decades (likely a result of global climate change).
The CBC is also an annual happening for Anderson and Brissette. Today the duo is covering one slice of a 15-mile-diameter “count circle” in and around Middleborough. After spotting and scribbling numbers, birders from across the circle will meet to pool their tallies at day’s end.
Since retiring from running the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences (which she founded as the Manomet Bird Observatory in 1969), Anderson has been working on projects for Massachusetts Audubon and other groups. A self-taught naturalist, she passed down her passion for birds to her grandson. “She put a pair of binoculars in my hands as soon as I was big enough to hold them,” says Brissette, who is planning a career in conservation.
“The dynamic between Betty and Andrew is fabulous,” says Geoffrey LeBaron, who directs the CBC and who has birded with the pair. “They’re both interested in bird behavior, habitat, and what environmental trends mean for the birds they’re seeing.”
One of today’s highlights is a common raven. Although once widely distributed across the western United States, logging, farming, and hunting squeezed the species out of the Northeast and Midwest a century ago. As forests regain ground, however, ravens are reappearing in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. The team is also excited to spot a kestrel and a sharp-shinned hawk in the same tree. “You don’t usually see them that close together,” Brissette observes. Anderson is proud of the birder he has become. “He’s quick, he’s confident, and he watches closely,” she says.
At noon the tally has reached 35 species and about 900 birds. But Brissette, who has to go to work, isn’t finished. From the car, he points across the road and calls, “Rock dove!” His grandmother chuckles and waves, then makes a note as he drives away.—Jennifer Weeks
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