From the Archives: Tsi-lick! Goes the Henslow’s

Photograph by Freddy Plimpton/Laemmle Zeller Films

From the Archives: Tsi-lick! Goes the Henslow’s

And other gleanings of an amateur among professionals on the Christmas Bird Count.

By George Plimpton
Published: November 1973

George Plimpton's "Tsi-lick! goes the Henslow's" first ran in the November-December 1973 Audubon

I should admit at the outset that my credentials as a birdwatcher are slightly sketchy.  True, birdwatching is a hobby, and if pressed I tell people that I truly enjoy it: on picnics I pack along a pair of binoculars and the Peterson field guide.  But I am not very good at it.  Identification of even a mildly rare bird or a confusing fall warbler is a heavy, painstaking business, with considerable riffling through the Peterson, and then a numbing of spirit since I am never really sure.  As a birder I have often thought of myself as rather like a tone-deaf person with just a lesson or two in his background who enjoys playing the flute - it's probably mildly pleasurable, but the results are uncertain.

Pressure to better myself as a birder has been consistently exacted on me by my younger brother and sister, who are both good birdwatchers and can hardly wait for fall and the possibility of being confused by warblers during the migration. 

Sometimes, when we are all going somewhere in a car, they involve me in a birding quiz which utilizes the Peterson guide.  My sister will say, opening the book at random, "All right, the two of you, see if you can guess this one."

She summarizes: "41/4 to 51/4 inches in length. O.K.? The bird is short-tailed and flat-headed with a big pale bill; finely streaked below.  The head is olive-colored and striped, and the wings are reddish.  Its flight is low and jerky with a twisting motion of the tail..."

"Got it," snaps my brother. "A cinch."

My sister looks at me.

"Well, it's not a brant goose," I say.

"That's very perceptive," she says.

"What's its call?" I ask, indulging in a holding action since I've never been able to remember or indeed hear in my inner ear the dreamy tseeeee-tsaaays or the syrupy zzzchuwunks that pepper Peterson's descriptions.

My sister reads directly from the book. "This bird 'perches atop a weed, from which it utters one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird; throwing back its head, it ejects a hiccoughing tsi-lick. As if to practice this 'song' so that it might not always remain at the bottom of the list, it often hiccoughs all night long.'"

"You're making that up," I say in astonishment. "That doesn't sound like Peterson at all."

"An absolute cinch," says my brother.  "You must known."

I decide to take a guess.  "A red-eyed vireo."

Both of them groan.

"What is it, Oakes?" my sister asks.

"Henslow's sparrow."

"Of course," she says smugly.

Despite such shortcomings, I was invited last winter to participate in the National Audubon Society's seventy-third annual Christmas Bird Count.  I accepted with alacrity, if only in the hope of improving my birdwatching ability, and perhaps, at the least, so I could do better in the Peterson contest with my brother and sister. 

For the uninitiated, the Christmas Bird Count was originated in 1900 by the editor of Bird-Lore magazine, Frank M. Chapman, who wished to organize a substitute for a traditional Christmas time wildlife slaughter known as the "side hunt," in which the gentry would "choose sides" and spend a day in the woods and fields blazing at everything that moved to increase their team's total toward the grand accounting at the end of the day. 

Chapman's first Christmas count involved twenty-seven people and twenty-five localities.  The largest list of birds spotted came from pacific Grove, California (36 species), and Chapman himself reported the second largest (18 species) from Englewood, New Jersey.  Those pioneer bird counters could not have been particularly proficient since the 1972 count near Pacific Grove was 179, and the New Jersey count nearest to Englewood was 72. 

From its modest beginnings, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count has mushroomed over seven decades - until last year, during the two-week Christmas period, some 20,000 observers were involved.  The participating teams 9each has one day of search time allowed and is confined to an area with a fifteen-mile diameter) numbered over 1,000. 

I thought I might join two counts - selecting one in the more temperate climate which would be competing for the greatest number of species (presumably over 200) and then perhaps one at the other extreme, such as the 1970 Nome, Alaska, count where a total of only three species was turned up. 

Over the past few years the competition for the highest count has been between three areas in California (San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Point Reyes, where in 1971, a huge army of 193 observers was mustered); Cocoa Beach, Florida, where the redoubtable Allan Cruickshank is the field marshal; and Freeport, Texas, a relatively new count organized sixteen years ago by ornithologist Victor Emanuel, who worked at the job until, in 1971, Freeport set the Christmas Bird Count record of 226 species, an astounding total considering the limitations of the fifteen mile circle of land and water. 

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