A Season of Firsts: Three Christmas Bird Counts to Remember

The joy of experiencing a Christmas Bird Count for the first time, as told by Christine Lin and Gabrielle Saleh.
A young Sandhill Cranes walks through brown grass.

This winter, we rang in the season by participating in our very first Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Both of us have worked at Audubon for a few years and hail from the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas. Despite being avid bird lovers who often elevate CBC events on Audubon’s social media platforms, we had yet to join one firsthand! And what an experience it was—we invite you to read along for three different CBC events around Dallas.

Lake Ray Hubbard December 18

Gabrielle: It’s 6:30 am and 30 degrees Fahrenheit—and I’m mentally preparing myself to travel an hour to my first CBC: the Lake Ray Hubbard count, an area just east of Dallas. I've been birding since I was seven years old, but I’ve never been able to participate in a CBC. Between family emergencies and holiday plans, the timing never aligned. That is until this year—my first year as a full-time employee at Audubon—when I became determined to experience one. 

Today, I’m bringing my boyfriend along, another avid birder, and my driver as I keep my eyes peeled on the road for birds. This allows me to spot the first bird of the day—a meadowlark perched on a barbed wire near a field just before we reach the group. We need to cover several parks around the lake, so we exchange pleasantries and direct our eyes and ears to the world around us. But we’re greeted with…silence? With the cold temperatures, the birds appear shy, to say the least. This leaves us time to get to know each other. We talk about when birds first captured our hearts—some are new to birding while others have been birding for decades. We’re interrupted by two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers hammering away at a tree. 

After encountering a few more woodpeckers, we head to our next destination and hear a flock of Canada Geese flying overhead. The count organizer talks about how CBCs aren’t just about adding a rare bird to the list. They’re also about counting all the common birds, down to the very last starling. It makes us appreciate the Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadee, and Eastern Bluebird we spot flying from tree to tree. I have to leave early, which only spurs my desire to attend my next one.

Village Creek Drying Beds December 26

Gabrielle: It’s 8 am, and I’m on the way to my second Christmas Bird Count: the Arlington Village Creek Drying Beds count, a wastewater treatment facility right in the middle of Dallas and Fort Worth. Today my boyfriend and I are birding with a couple who have been hosting this count for years. They share a checklist of the birds that have been spotted in the area during the past couple of weeks, and we’re determined to check off a majority of those birds today.

The area provides prime habitat for a variety of waterfowl. But since temperatures have been hovering near freezing, there’s a thin sheet of ice covering much of the water and fewer ducks than usual. The ducks that are left are comically waddling across the ice to get from one patch of water to another. After we share a few laughs, we start the task of counting them. Counting hundreds of Northern Shovelers has never been my specialty, so I start with the individual birds—two Pied-billed Grebes, four Ruddy Ducks, and six Buffleheads—and gradually work my way up to counting a few flocks of Gadwalls. Luckily one of the leaders is skilled at counting flocks and records exactly 322 American Coots.

We’re hours in, and we turn around to spot a coyote gingerly following us, but this doesn’t deter us from completing our route. So far, we haven’t spotted a bird that’s out of the ordinary. That is until we cross paths with a couple of birders who tell us that there’s been a young Sandhill Crane spotted roaming the fields, and they lead us right to it. We stare in awe.

We still have a few more sites to visit before we call it a day. It’s exciting to drive around in hopes of spotting a new bird at each location. Just as we’re about to leave our last site, a local golf course, we spot a Loggerhead Shrike, and we later find out that it's the only one recorded through all the zones. We celebrate by meeting up with everyone who participated in various zones and sharing stories of our sightings. It feels like a community knowing that we’re all here to celebrate and help birds.

Cedar Hill – January 1

Christine: What better way to start off the new year than with some morning birding? It’s 8 am, and my mom and I have just pulled up at the parking lot at the Dogwood Canyon Audubon Center in Cedar Hill, Texas. While I’m trying hard to suppress a few yawns, the brisk air and excitement of being outside snap me into alert mode.

Like Gabrielle, this is also my first time participating in a CBC, despite being a “budding birder” ever since I started working at Audubon five years ago. My mom, on the other hand, can hardly tell a dove from a warbler, but her enthusiasm makes up for it all the same. With binoculars in hand, our group—led by Katie Christman—jumps into a van and embarks on our first journey.

It's a relatively quiet morning, but between a nature reserve, a frisbee golf course, and a library situated by a pond, we find quite a few feathered friends. American Crows abound, a Northern Cardinal pair poses in a bare tree, American Robins hop around, Black and Turkey Vultures circle overhead, and a Ruby-crowned Kinglet peeks out at us. My lack of refined bird ID skills incorrectly identifies a Blue Jay as a Belted Kingfisher in the distance, but the experts in the group quickly make the correction. I also count a Northern Mockingbird, the state bird of Texas, and one of my favorite species to see with their expressive tails.

Gabrielle: It’s 8 am, and clearly, I can’t get enough of CBCs. It's a thrill to bird with others all with the common goal of helping ensure a future for birds. Today, I’m bringing my dad along for the ride. He’s been my personal chauffeur on birding adventures since I was seven, so it’s fitting that he experiences a CBC, too. 

Christman drives us to our first location, a quiet preserve in Cedar Hill. There isn’t much activity but this gives us time to listen. We hear a Carolina Wren and a pair of Northern Cardinals. In between sightings, we get to know each other and share what led us to participate in this count. Our group has experienced birders and beginners, so our stories vary, but we all bring with us a love for our feathered friends.

We arrive at another location where we finally find some ducks. It’s a small mixed flock, so this time, I take the lead on counting Northern Pintails and Ring-necked Ducks after picking up a few tips from my previous count—what a wonderful way to end my first season of CBCs.

It’s safe to say that both of us thoroughly enjoyed our first CBCs, from how welcoming they are to how they connect participants with our love of birds and our passion for protecting them. Plus, it’s amazing to know that all our sightings will help scientists understand how birds are faring across the hemisphere. Christmas Bird Counts truly show that whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned birder, you can be a community scientist. And now that we have one season under our belt, we’re ready to participate in future counts to come.

Interested in joining a Christmas Bird Count this year? Find out how to get involved here.