About 70 pairs of eyes were on the skies Saturday when members of the Howard County Bird Club took to the fields, parks, lakes and forests for their seventh-annual winter bird count.
"You never know what's going to turn up. It's always something that is unexpected," said Joanne Solem, vice president of the club.
The count helps track the county's bird population and can reflect changes in bird habitats.
Getting up at the crack of dawn on a cold, blustery day is one way of separating the serious birders from the fowl fanciers. And it was clear that neither wind, rain, snow nor hail would have stopped Helen Zeichner, a 59-year-old homemaker, and her partner, Peggy Erbe, 44, an analyst with the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn.
Both women began counting birds at 7 a.m. in the Wilde Lake area of Columbia. Three and a half hours later, Lake Kittamaqundi was their second stop.
Searching with top-of-the-line binoculars against the wind, through thickets, trees and rocky creeks, the two Columbia women didn't seem to notice the frigid temperatures.
Both were dressed warmly, especially Zeichner -- a six-year member of the club -- who wore a ski jacket and pants, sweater, hat, gloves and boots.
On this day they traveled with a charted list for recording the various species, and stashed some snacks in their pockets for energy along the way.
"We count everything we hear and see," Zeichner said. "Everyone has their own method."
While Zeichnerlooked through her binoculars, Erbe marked off the checklist provided by the club. Relying on bird sightings as well as "chip notes" or calls they heard, the women continued around the lake for three hours,checking off names like hooded merganser, greater black back gull, Carolina wren and wood duck.
With only a half-hour break, the counters took off for their third location in Columbia, Vantage Point, andwere rewarded for their efforts by spotting two barred owls and a catbird -- a summer bird. At the end of the day the women had spotted 39 different species, which they consider a low count because of the winds.
On Saturday evening a covered-dish dinner with hosts Dan andMartha Waugh of Columbia provided a welcome respite for about 45 people -- some of whom had counted birds from dawn until dark -- to share information from their day.
In all, they identified 90 species and spotted 54,000 individual birds, said David Holmes, who helped coordinate the count. But the club expects to get tally sheets from another 50 bird watchers, who participated from home by monitoring the numbers and types of birds that visited their feeders.
The number ofwaterfowl, 22 species, was somewhat high because the mild winter hasleft many pockets of open water. But the number of standard wood birds, such as chickadees, woodpeckers and juncos, were a little below average this year, he said.
"It's really tough to bird in the wind,because birds will hide in the brush," Holmes said.
As far as rare birds were concerned, Holmes said, "there wasn't much."
Two species were spotted that never had appeared on the counts before -- the common loon and the American coot. A peregrine falcon and a wild turkey also were observed, the second time those birds had appeared on the winter count.
And, he said, for the second year in a row no bobwhites were seen.
"They have declined drastically," Holmes said.
The club, a chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society, was the first in Maryland to organize county tallies of birds. Now 10 other Maryland counties do it.
"If it is done by all the counties, it gives us an idea of what is happening in all of those locations," said Solem.
The organization participates in two other regional bird counts -- the Triadelphia Christmas Count that covers the western half of the county, and is part of a nationwide tally, and the statewide May Count that -- like the winter tally -- encompasses the entire county.