Tis' the season. . .for Christmas Bird Counts, of course. The snowed-out Cape May Count will rise again January 1 - hopefully the revelers-come-counters will rise as well!
Most readers likely participate in the CBC, but if you're not yet doing one (or several), they are highly recommended. If you can, get yourself a territory on your favorite count and stick with it for years and years, and keep track of what you find just in your little territory.
[Owling is a CBC tradition - this Eastern Screech-owl cooperated for a photo (after flying past my ear) during Saturday's Walnut Valley CBC, not far from the Delaware Water Gap in northern NJ. Friends and I have tracked color morph on screech-owls since 1992 on the nearby Northwest Hunterdon CBC. Of the 55 screech-owls we've called close enough for a quick look in the flashlight, 31 have been red, like this one. Click to enlarge.]
Many years ago ornithologist Charlie Leck did a simple analysis showing changes in winter bird populations as demonstrated by CBC's for New Jersey Birds, and I think I've got Bill Boyle convinced to have a go at an updated article soon (Bill, are you reading this?) You can also get historical CBC results online by count or region, but you can't look at what is happening in your own patch that way, so save your records is my advice. Often, what you find in your own little CBC territory reflects what is happening in the big picture, making it personal.
I've done the Northwest Hunterdon CBC for 18 years and Walnut Valley almost as long, covering the same patches of ground, a mix of woods, fields and small lakes (sometimes frozen, sometimes not), plus a section of the Delaware River for Walnut Valley, making the territory a real peach. Cape May's CBC always happens the same date as Hunterdon (unless one is weathered out!) so in a way I'm out of luck. But not really - we hear as many as 40 screech-owls in a night up north some years, have watched sapsuckers increase and kestrels plummet, and quietly rage as first one prime Field Sparrow spot is developed, then another. Valuable observations, fun in the field, good friends and family for company, and the spice of occasional rarities make the annual CBC a composite of all that's good about birding.