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Birding, like football, is a sport played in all weathers. Birders pursue their sightings through rain, snow, agonizing windchills, and wilting heat. Field-trip schedules usually carry the simple warning: dress for the weather.

Machismo may play a part in our refusal to be cowed by climatic nastiness, but the important thing is our knowledge that good birding bears no discernible relationship to good weather. You can get skunked on the sunniest days, and have birds falling out of the trees on days when sensible people are refusing to get more than ten feet from a radiator.

Which is why I approached last Saturday's North Shore Christmas Bird Count filled with hope for a day of extraordinary sightings. It was obvious that the day was going to be nasty. I got up a few minutes after 5 AM, long before the faintest glimmer of gray showed in the east. As I walked the dog in the alley behind our house, my feet slipped out from under me twice, and only the lightning-fast reactions and deft moves acquired through decades of struggle with Chicago's icy winters saved me from falling.

The side streets were even worse than the alley. Sunnyside Avenue was coated with a sheet of ice so perfectly smooth that Katarina Witt could have performed her whole routine on it. When we approached the first stop sign, my car tried a double axel, and we had a few anxious moments of me furiously pumping brakes while the car drifted past the sign, moving with exquisite slowness, as inexorable as a lava flow.

The main streets were wet but not slippery, which was good, because our territory was along the Des Plaines River between Dundee Road and Lake Cook Road, and going that far at a safe speed on the skating rinks around my house would have taken until next Tuesday.

The 90th annual Christmas bird count took place this year. Each year during the two weeks that bracket Christmas and New Year's, birders all over the United States and Canada and in several other countries as well conduct censuses of winter bird life. More than 40,000 birders join in these counts, and the results of their enumerations comprise the world's largest body of data about the populations of any group of animals.

Each census tract is a circle 15 miles in diameter. The North Shore count area extends from northern Cook County to Lake Forest, and from the lake to just west of the Des Plaines River. There are several other counts around Chicago, but I like the North Shore count best because the parties they throw at the end of the day are better.

I have gotten stuck a few times with really bad territories on the North Shore count. One year, I spent most of the day counting chickadees at backyard feeders in Lake Forest. But this year, we had the Potawatomi Woods Forest Preserve, with its mile of river bank and some open fields where rough-legged hawks might hang out, so the possibilities seemed promising.

Our party of three--my wife, my daughter, and I--hit the woods just as the eastern sky brightened from black to the dirty gray it would wear for the rest of the day. We had our first bird within a minute, a crow calling somewhere in the distance. We got our first chickadee 50 yards farther down the path, and a downy woodpecker a few seconds later.

I was trying out my screech-owl call, a tactic that has worked exactly once in my life. A good screech-owl imitation can be very productive. You might get a screech owl to answer it, or you might get a great horned owl coming to eat the screech owl, or a flock of small songbirds coming to mob the screech owl. We got none of the above.

We did get lots of robins. Our eventual total for the day was 31. Most of them were along the river, but we found some in almost every part of our territory. Robins routinely winter this far north, but usually in small numbers. Why there were more than usual this year I do not know.

Rivers are very attractive to all kinds of wildlife. Everything needs water, and water is particularly hard to come by in winter when most sources are frozen. The Des Plaines was solid ice near Dundee Road, but as we continued north we found some open patches where mallards were swimming. The mallard duck is generally thought to be the ancestor of the domestic duck. The wild birds are quite tame and adaptable, and they have moved into the various ponds created for flood control and decoration in suburban apartment complexes and corporate headquarters. With all sorts of new habitat available, mallards have become one of our most common birds. We saw 65 of them before the day was over.

We also saw 11 deer, 4 of them bucks with rather nice racks. Last summer was very productive of deer food, and all the animals looked healthy and prosperous.

A fine, misty drizzle fell all day, and every few minutes I wiped the droplets from the eyepieces on my binoculars. This turned out to be an almost entirely unnecessary maneuver. I only needed the binocs about eight or ten times all day. We were seeing very few birds, and the ones we were seeing were so familiar--crows, starlings, robins--that I could identify them with my naked eyes.

When we reached the bridge at Lake Cook Road, we turned away from the river to explore the woods east of it. This turned out to be an almost total waste of time. Outside of a couple of robins that passed high overhead, we saw absolutely no birds.

Our next stop was the corporate headquarters of Baxter Labs. The vast landscaped grounds there attract herds of Canada geese. We drove slowly through, and counted about 150 birds grazing along the roadside.

Just south of Baxter is a huge open area where we had some hopes of finding a rough-legged hawk. Rough-legged hawks are big birds, as big as red-tailed hawks and with even longer wings. They nest on the tundra and winter in mid-latitude places like Chicago. They like open ground, places that remind them of their summer home. They will also perch in small trees at the edges of open fields, and you can sometimes see them hovering over the fields, their beating wings holding them stationary as they search the ground for prey. We saw no rough-legged hawks this day.

Our next task was to walk a mile of railroad track to see if we could turn anything up in the weedy fields that flanked the line. We did get some juncos and tree sparrows there, but otherwise accomplished nothing beyond modest increases in our crow and starling totals.

Birding in the northern suburbs can get depressing. Everywhere you see land that was fields and woods a few years ago and that is now warehouses, regional sales offices, and fast-food joints. I'm sure these places do wonderful things to the tax base, but they don't leave much space for birds. I think of them as pigeon-habitat expansion projects.

By lunchtime, our patience was beginning to wear a bit thin. Our daughter is not what you would call an avid birder to begin with. She would rather search through malls for cool clothes than scour the woods for chickadees, but she handled the morning with a commendably sporting attitude. By noon, she was asking how long it would be before we got to go home, and my wife and I were starting to ask ourselves the same question. By one o'clock, I realized we had covered all the promising places in our territory, with the exception of a furniture-store parking lot where ring-billed gulls were supposed to hang out in some numbers. I decided that the gulls would remain uncounted, and we packed it in.

The really sad part of the story was still to come. Due to a last-minute scheduling problem, we were not going to be able to attend the party that had been the main reason for signing up for this venture in the first place. North Shore bird-count parties not only provide lots of good food and drink but lots of good conversation, most of it about birds.

I consoled myself with the thought that I would at least escape the pangs of envy that usually hit me at these parties. I always seem to encounter people who are just back from major birding expeditions to the Amazon or the headwaters of the Ganges, and inevitably there would be somebody whose territory on this cold, wet, gray day had held birds galore, including species never before discovered on a North Shore count. I couldn't bear listening to somebody earnestly explain how strange it was that the best birding days were likely to be the days with the worst weather.

Our own grand total for the day was 392 individuals of 17 species. Mallards and Canada geese accounted for nearly 60 percent of the individuals seen. Oh, well. There's always next year.

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