A great gray owl is a rare sighting on Stud Mill Road in February of 2006. (Courtesy of Bob Duchesne) Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne | Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

Winter birding is like panning for gold. You have to sift through a lot of sand to find a nugget. Or in my case, you have to sort through a lot of chickadees to find a shrike.

I put it to the test on Tuesday. I intended to go on Saturday, but that’s the day the equivalent of Lake Erie fell from the rainclouds. Then Sunday and Monday were windy enough to blow a house to Oz. So even though Saturday, Dec. 14, was the first day of Christmas Bird Count season, and also the first day of Winter Atlas season, I waited for a dry, calm morning – Tuesday.

The Christmas Bird Count is an annual event that has been going on for 120 years. It’s a winter bird census conducted within specific count circles, each with a 15 mile diameter. There are 35 such circles in Maine this year. For each circle, just one day is set aside for the count. For instance, the Bangor-Bucksport count will happen on Saturday, Dec. 28. Some counts are as far-flung as Monhegan and Matinicus.

On the other hand, the Winter Bird Atlas is brand-spanking-new this year. It’s part of a five-year project to map the state, under the direction of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Most of the project’s emphasis is on summer breeding birds. Breeding species indicate what’s happening on the planet, as their numbers increase and decrease, and their ranges expand and contract. Thus, birds offer a real benchmark on how humans are faring. Lately, it hasn’t been good news.

[The mystery of why 2.9 billion birds have disappeared from the US in 50 years]

Wintering birds offer insight, too. Maine is the winter home for a lot of arctic breeding birds. Some come down here every year. Some visit only in years when food is scarce in Canada. Much of the nesting area for these birds is totally inaccessible – just scrub and tundra – so it’s logistically hard to survey them in their summer territories. But when they visit in winter, we can estimate their abundance, their summer food supply in Canada, and their winter food supply in Maine. By tracking these trends over many years, we can sense how the planet is doing.

For instance, this decade started with a big invasion of snowy owls. Lemmings are the prime food for snowy owls during nesting season, so we can assume a big explosion in the lemming population without even going up there to look. Of course, some biologists looked anyway. Despite physical hardships, testing assumptions is what biologists do.

Just as interesting, how do those Canadian visitors look at our state? Which birds go where? Where are they finding food? By mapping out where they appear, we can get a sense of what Maine has to offer, and how that may change over time.

So there I was on Tuesday, bundled up against a 20-degree morning, walking a remote section of the Stud Mill Road east of Milford, with my wife, Sandi. We walked 3 miles over 95 minutes. We tallied 16 black-capped chickadees, four golden-crowned kinglets, three blue jays, three red-breasted nuthatches, two purple finches and one each of common raven, American crow and downy woodpecker. In short, we sifted a lot of sand and found no nuggets. I could have done as well sitting in my robe by the window, drinking a second cup of coffee.

But here’s what we also found: a pleasant winter walk on a crisp but windless morning. We found exercise and fresh air. No, we didn’t find any of the possible winter specialties that can appear along that road. Northern shrikes occur regularly. Common redpolls love the area, and we found a big flock next to the Maine Youth Fish & Game Association building last winter. Crossbills frequent the area in most years, and pine grosbeaks occur in some. The very rare great gray owl has been found here at least twice in the past decade.

[Great gray owls makes a rare stop in Maine]

Basically, we got some exercise and contributed to science. It’s equally important to not find birds as it is to find them. That’s the whole point of the Winter Bird Atlas.

Weather notwithstanding, winter birding is much easier than summer. There are no confusing warblers to worry about. No singing birds at all. The number of potential species in winter is small, and most are easily recognized. Anybody can do it.

If you want to be one of those anybodies, visit the DIF&W website at maine.gov for more information about the Winter Bird Atlas.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

Watch: Reid State Park winter birding