My kids wear Christmas pajamas beneath snow pants and winter coats on December 25th, their legs swishing as we walk along paths that wind through Chicago’s Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary along the lakefront on the city’s North Side. My five-year-old daughter’s new binoculars hang around her neck, a present from Santa, and my three-year-old son carries a green version sized for even smaller hands.

My daughter spots a cardinal, then a chickadee, through her binoculars. “Birding is so fun,” she says as we make our way over to meet a group conducting a Christmas Bird Count. My husband Tim and I have decided to leave crumpled wrapping paper, half-eaten cookies, and some unopened gifts behind at 8 a.m. on Christmas morning to enjoy a very different holiday experience: a morning spent tallying Chicago’s birdlife. An annual bird census organized by the National Audubon Society, the CBC enlists volunteers to gather data that illuminates how avian populations change over time.

When we find the dozen birders doing the count, they are searching for Tree Sparrows, their binoculars trained on a tree near the beach. A rare bird alert pops up on someone’s phone: There’s a Western Grebe in Montrose Harbor on the other side of the bird sanctuary. The long-necked interloper would be the first of its kind recorded on this CBC, a count begun in 1967. The group easily spots the grebe as it gracefully paddles through the water, past empty slips, and into the harbor’s mouth. My kids, being kids, turn their attention from birds to the thin ice they can crush nearby, and linger to delight in this other winter joy with my husband as the group moves on.

A Northern Cardinal sits on a tree branch in Chicago's Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. More than 30 different bird species were counted from Montrose Beach on the Northside to Promontory Point on the Southside of the city. Joshua Lott

Every year for the past five decades, dedicated birders have joined Chicago’s lakefront count to identify the birds that choose to stick out a cold Windy City winter. Twenty years ago, organizer Joel Greenberg decided to hold the count on December 25th, making it the only metropolitan CBC actually conducted annually on Christmas.  

The benefits of counting birds on Christmas Day are many: Traffic’s light, parking lots sit vacant, and birds go about their business undisturbed. But there’s also a less practical, more inspirational upside: It offers participants like us a break from the commercial trappings of Christmas, one that holds its own surprises and delights. And we find we’re not the only ones with this in mind. Another family with kids has shown up, too.

Sporting new binoculars from Santa, the author's kids and husband joined her on the Christmas Day count before eventually retreating to the warmth of their home. Photos: Susan Cosier

To count as many birds as possible in our 15-mile count circle, participants have split into two groups: One, led by Greenberg, a lawyer and author of A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, starts on the city’s South Side and works its way north; the other, led by Geoff Williamson, an engineer, and his wife Christine, a financial journalist, starts here at Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary, on the North Side, and makes its way south. The two groups then meet in the middle.

Though the morning started at a relatively mild (for Chicago) 30 degrees, some birders wouldn’t miss the count no matter what the weather. “It could be raining and five degrees, but then you get all these surprises,” says Rebecca Rice, who, with her 26-year-old son, Ari, participates every year.

Participants look through their binoculars along Lake Michigan during the annual Christmas Bird Count. A Western Grebe and Piping Plover spotted this year were firsts for this circle. Joshua Lott

As any of the birders will tell you, an urban count along the lakefront will, and has, led to some exhilarating discoveries. (And some gruesome: The group once encountered a dead body floating in the water.) Last year the group saw an Ovenbird in a parking garage, a bird they would have certainly missed had the lot not been empty. On the count seven years ago, birders found a rare California Gull.

This year’s highlight, however, is the Piping Plover at Montrose Beach near the bird sanctuary. Over the past couple of months, people spotted the bird at a few locations around Lake Michigan, including the Indiana Dunes. Piping Plovers are a special find even in summer—only 70 pairs nest in the Great Lakes region—and most winter along the Atlantic coast or Gulf states. Because of the bird’s endangered status, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to catch this one three separate times before Christmas, in hopes of overwintering it in Lincoln Park Zoo until the spring, without success. But the silver lining for the birders is that the plover is another first for this CBC.

A rare Piping Plover rests on Montrose Beach along Lake Michigan. The birds are just starting to rebound in the Great Lakes region, and most fly south for the winter. Joshua Lott

By midday, both count groups have birded their way to Museum Campus, a peninsula just west of downtown that holds the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, and the Adler Planetarium. There the birders talk and count, report and catch up. Greenberg explains where he saw a Snowy Owl, another good score, a few hours earlier.

Kelly McKay, a wildlife biologist who started with the southern group, peers through a scope. He’s doing a CBC marathon, participating in a count every day one’s offered during the 23-day count period. He’d like to eclipse Paul Sykes for the record of the most consecutive CBCs. Sykes has so far completed 523 counts; McKay, 476. McKay will have to participate in a count every day one occurs for the next two years, and then some, to overtake the champ—and that’s if Sykes stays at home. The two talk on the phone this time of year, says McKay, and rib each other about the friendly competition.

The Chicago count was just one of many this year for wildlife biologist Kelly McKay, who hopes to one day take over the record for participating in the most CBCs. Joshua Lott

But McKay has another motivation for crisscrossing Illinois in pursuit of birds over the holidays. “It’s more than just catching Paul,” he says. “I wish I could do Christmas counts every day of the year.” As a biologist, McKay is particularly interested in avian population ecology and what might happen to birds as the climate changes. “There are only two programs in the world that provide that long-term, large-scale geographic area data that you need to actually look at populations,” he says, “and that’s the Christmas Bird Count and the Breeding Bird Survey”—a similar census hosted by the U.S. Geological Survey every spring. Although the strength of the data relies heavily on the dedication of volunteer birders year after year, that’s also the CBC’s strength. McKay calls it "the best game in town." 

Today’s count was no exception. When I arrive home, my kids—warm, content, and already changed out of their PJs—excitedly ask about the rest of my birding excursion. We talk about what I saw and page through a bird guide. For us, the CBC has become a welcome new Christmas tradition, and one that I hope my family will continue for years to come.

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