Birds Birdwatching Christmas Nature

Remember the Christmas Bird Count

Tundra swans on a foggy, snowy morning. Grand Island, NE.
Tundra swans on a foggy, snowy morning. Grand Island, NE

What is the Christmas Bird Count?

As Christmas draws ever nearer, I linger over photographs of snow and recall living in Nebraska and participating in the Christmas Bird Count there. The Christmas Bird Count is just what it sounds like–an annual event in which volunteer bird watchers identify and count birds in their local areas. The counting follows a strict protocol and has been done for over 100 years, yielding an accurate bird census that gives ornithologists critical data on species abundance over time.

The whole thing is administered by the National Audubon Society, with local organizers responsible for the count within their assigned area. The specific day of the count is determined locally, but must occur between December 14thand January 5th.

All over the Western hemisphere, the Christmas Bird Count sees volunteers spending all or part of the designated day tramping around outdoors, identifying and counting birds. Every year the information gathered is compiled, turned in to the National Audubon Society and added to a database containing over a century’s worth of avian census records.

Participating in the Christmas Bird Count

To participate in the Christmas bird count is a privilege that I enjoyed when I lived “up North”. There was something vastly satisfying about seeing for myself the diversity of wildlife that persevered in eastern Nebraska despite temperatures below freezing and the lack of abundant food that characterized the winter months.

My experience was in Nebraska, but yours could easily be close to wherever you live.  Find out more at the National Audubon Society webpage.  You will see that the number of areas surveyed is nothing short of staggering. North America has the greatest density of census “circles”, but there are are also circles in Central and South America.

Take a closer look at the map of 2018-2019 sites here. (The Audubon map is interactive. If you click on a circle, you will see the local organizer’s name and contact information.)

Whether you watch birds or photograph clouds, do make time this season to get outdoors and enjoy the wonders of nature in the winter, wherever you live.

Until next time,

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Finding the Perfect Christmas Gift

Two approaches, Three criteria, One perfect gift

How do you find the perfect gift?

Two approaches

Wrapped Christmas giftsThere are two distinct ways to approach holiday gift giving, practiced by two different sets of people. In any given family, one approach or the other will tend to predominate. Perhaps it’s genetic. The two groups are the List-makersand the I-dunno-ers.


Some families love lists. Their approach to gifting works like this: You write down a bunch of stuff that you’d like to have, covering a range of prices from small to semi-extravagant. Then, if you are male, you give it to your wife. If not, you pass it to the Keeper of Lists. Or simply mention the items on it as often as possible to anyone willing to listen. (The method used varies depending on the family in question.)

Sometimes List-makertradition can lead to conflict when a family member marries outside their gift-giving culture. Our family is entirely composed of I-dunno-ers. My older son married a lovely and energetic woman from a long line of List-makers. Those of us on this side of the family tried to provide her with lists. But coming, as she did, from a tradition where even men can produce decent potential gift lists, she must have been sorely frustrated by our feeble attempts at telling her what we want.

In her List-makerfamily, shopping was the name of the game. As a virtual non-shopper, I always found her ability in this area incredible. Her fun was not in receiving gifts. Due to her list, she knew she would get a nice selection of things that she wanted and could actually use. Her fun came from hunting for items to give others.

When I shopped with her, we went from store to store as she looked for specific items from gift lists. I mainly tagged along. When she spotted a really great deal on an item from someone’s list, the hunt ended. “Score!”


By contrast, everyone in my family was an I-dunno-er. Our list-making skills were poor, and we lacked the shopping gene altogether. (Undoubtedly my fault.)

“What would you like me to get you for Christmas?” I asked my youngest son.

“I dunno,” he replied.

“How about a gift card to the home improvement store?” I thought this was a great idea. He and his bride had bought a fixer-upper.


“Cash? Then you could spend it anywhere you want,” I encouraged.

“I don’t want cash or a gift card, I want a present. Something to unwrap.”

“Okay, I’ll try to think of something,” I said, discouraged. But if he wouldn’t help me with his gift, perhaps… “Any idea what I can get your Dad? He’s so hard to buy for. When he wants something, he just gets it.”

My son didn’t grasp the enormity of the problem. “I’ll help you find a present for Dad.” He promised easily. “You don’t want something he knows he wants. You want to find something he doesn’t even know he needs or wants until he unwraps it, but then he’s like: ‘This is just what I need’ or ‘It’s just what I wanted.’ Those are the best presents.”

‘That’s easy for you to say,’ I thought. But I kept my mouth shut. When in desperate need, it didn’t do to disparage those offering assistance.

Something you don’t even know you want until you unwrap it.

A great description of the perfect gift. (It wasn’t a lot of help three days before Christmas, but still, what a goal to shoot for.)

Well, for my loving husband I finally settled on something I knew he would like, but wouldn’t buy for himself. Earlier that year, he’d bought a new robe. Loved it. The first time we washed it, it was accidentally thrown in the dryer and shrank eight inches. He is six-three, so that was a big deal. He’d been making do ever since.

So, I found a new robe—that was easy, just asked my shopper daughter-in-law where to go. No muss, no fuss. But what about my son? What did he need that he didn’t even know he wanted? I had no clue.

Three factors to consider

Shopping with my son again the next day—only two days until Christmas—he and I discussed how he’d arrived at his gift choices for his wife. (He’s good at this, just not an early-bird.) Between us, we identified three basic factors to consider when gifting someone. I found them very useful guidelines. Maybe you will also.

First, the Fun Factor—Things you can play with are better gifts than things of a more practical nature. Thus, clothing often counts as fun for women, but seldom counts for men. And while new kitchen items rank well with the chefs in the family, those of us who don’t love experimenting in the kitchen… well, you get the idea.

Second, the Memory Factor—a gift based upon something you remember your giftee said, maybe in passing, once upon a time. These items show that you listen and that you care. A winning combination.

Third, the Recognition factor—something that shows you recognize the kind of person your loved one wants to be: sexy, outdoorsy, a gourmet chef, intellectual, a techie, whatever. Note that the Memory Factor and the Recognition Factor combine to make the Romance Factor…but for purposes of analysis, it is better to keep them separate.

Three primary factors, three bases if you will. If you can tag all three in one gift, all that remains is home plate… Will your loved one unwrap it and suddenly be aware he’s wanted it all along?

The perfect gift

I think my son hit a home run that year, plus bonus points for extravagance. He bought a pair of kayaks so he and his love could go out on the water together. Maybe he’s found another bonus—his gift carried the promise of time spent together. That’s important, and melds into the Romance Factor. Like I said, he’s good at this.

So I was supposed to find something—with no help from him—for Mister Gift-master. A tall order, but I thought I might have succeeded. Their fixer-upper had a huge backyard. He’s the outdoorsy, let’s-do-something type. So I got him a nice set of Bocce balls. (Since he is male, I figured I’d have the As-seen-in-a-Godfather-movie bonus going for me as well.) The next day, I found out how I’d done.


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A Two-step Plan to the Best Christmas Ever

Christmas decorated houseWhat does it take to make Christmas happen? Holiday season commercials tell you to do MORE this year in order to make Christmas a success. Before your eyes flash pictures of things to buy or to do that, the ads imply, will make your holidays better. But must every year somehow surpass the year before?  That’s a wonderful recipe for stress.

Sorry, decoration hawkers of the world. I don’t agree. I think the way to make the most of your holiday this year may be to do less.You only need to do two things to have the best Christmas ever. The first is rooted in thinking, the second in doing.

The first requirement for a great holiday is to adopt the best attitude.

Thinking refers to our attitude. The first requirement for a great holiday is to adopt the best attitude. Children can teach up how.

When my grandkids were six and seven, everything was the best ever.
“This was the best day of my whole life.”
“This is the best dinner ever.”
There was no limit to how many things could be best. This became clear to me one day when, for no good reason really, I challenged my seven-year-old granddaughter when, for the second day in a row, she declared “This was the best day ever.”

“You said that yesterday,” I observed. “So which really was the best?”
“Both,” she replied. “Yesterday was the best, and today is the best.”
“So on tomorrow, which will be the best: today or yesterday?”
“Both. They were both the best.”

After a while, I got it. In her mind, once a day is the best, it stays the best, and it can be followed by another best day without being superseded.

We should all be as smart as seven-year-olds. The attitude that makes Christmas the best ever, includes understanding that we are allowed more than one “best”. In fact, we can have as many as we choose.

The second requirement for a great holiday is to do something to celebrate.

So let me tell you about one of my many best Christmases. We were newlyweds, my husband and I, living in an efficiency flat situated in an old, but well-kept area of Chicago. That meant we had a bathroom, a kitchen with a small dining area, and a living room with a Murphy bed that folded up into the wall during the day. (Yes, really!)

Being young, foolish and broke, we decided the smart thing to do would be to buy gifts at the after-Christmas sales and, of course, we weren’t going to spend money on a tree or decorations. My mother and his had always made Christmas happen without much help from the rest of the family, and we honestly didn’t realize that some  effort on our part would be required. Consequently, our Christmas spirit was sadly lacking that year, and we weren’t really sure why.

When my parents came to visit on the day after Christmas my brother, a high school senior, was scandalized. No tree, no decorations, no presents…it wasn’t to be borne. When my husband and I went with my parents to shop the sales, he stayed home.

Hours later we returned, tired and cranky, and found the apartment transformed. Our first clue was a small rectangle of green construction paper taped to the front door. On it was written: WREATH (big and beautiful). We opened the door and dangling from a long strip of tape hanging from the high ceiling was a construction paper square—yellow, this time. It was labeled in black ink, similar to the sign on the front door, as MISTLETOE.

As we stepped into the apartment, a strange and wonderful sight met our eyes. In one corner of the room, the old army cot that was my brother’s bed had been upended, and the upper legs collapsed in to make a point, of sorts. The cot was covered with a bright green thermal blanket and hanging from the blanket were a dozen or more of the construction paper signs.

At the tip-top was a yellow rectangle: STAR (big and beautiful). Below that one could find ORNAMENT (gold), ORNAMENT (striped), ORNAMENT (sparkly) and ORNAMENT (red), plus TINSEL (lots of). On the floor next to the one straggling corner of green blanket was the inevitable… ORNAMENT (broken).

Sitting at the base of the “tree,” a yellow sign proclaimed itself to be the MANGER SCENE (Mary, Joseph, and Babe included).

You’ve guessed it. The second requirement for a great holiday is to do something to celebrate. And money is no object. My brother didn’t spend any money, but he took action. The effect was immediate and dramatic.

Suddenly it was Christmas.

Of all the Christmases I remember, even the wonderful ones when our children were young, there is none that taught me as much as the Christmas my brother gave us that year. I learned that it isn’t about the lights, or the candles, or the tree—though those are all good things. It’s about the love that puts them there. And it doesn’t matter if the ornaments are fancy, or homemade, or even just construction paper signs. It is caring enough to make the season special—with some sign of celebration, however small—that wakes the Christmas spirit in our hearts. It doesn’t have to be bigger than last year. It doesn’t have to be brighter. It doesn’t have to be shiny or new. But someone has to care enough to make an effort to set the scene.

This year I will be traveling in mid-December, to spend Christmas with family. I wasn’t going to decorate the house…it seemed a silly waste of effort. But you know, I think I will. Not the boxes and boxes of things I enjoy hauling out and putting up most years, but something. Something small, put up with love, to celebrate the season. Maybe even a few construction paper signs, though they are brittle now, and yellowed with age. Something to make Christmas happen.