When Jim Hoyson was a child, he spied something in the peach tree in the backyard that sparked a passion.
In the tree was a small Blackburnian warbler, and Hoyson was amazed at the sharp coloration of the little bird.
It was very striking, and I kept looking out the window at the tree to see what other birds would come by, he said. That's how I got started in birding.
Today Hoyson's passion for birding will hit its yearly peak when he and other volunteers take part in the Audubon Society's 113th Annual Christmas Bird Count, which continues to Jan. 5, nationwide.
The count takes place within Count Circles, which focus on specific geographical areas. Each circle is a 15-mile diameter and there are 73 in Pennsylvania. Each circle is led by a Count Compiler, who is an experienced birdwatcher, enabling beginning birders to learn while they assist.
Hoyson serves as the compiler for the count circle in the Dallas area. He will lead teams of volunteers afield to count any birds they see or can identify by calls. The Dallas circle uses the Huntsville Reservoir as a center point and includes parts of Harveys Lake, Ceasetown Dam and the Susquehanna River, providing plenty of prime bird habitat.
Data collected through the count – which dates back to 1900 and is the longest running wildlife census – is used by biologists and researchers to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across the continent.
Dan Brauning, chief of the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Wildlife Diversity Division, said the count has been crucial toward gauging bird populations.
Each year, volunteers brave snow, wind, or rain, to take part in the Christmas Bird Count, and they have made enormous contributions to bird conservation continent-wide while doing so, Brauning said.
When combined with other surveys, such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.
Hoyson has been participating in the annual count since 1978 and took over the duties as compiler 20 years ago. Participants count not only the number of different species, but the total number of birds they spot as well.
In the Dallas count circle, things peaked last year when Hoyson and volunteers chalked up an estimated 35,000 bird sightings. Much of it had to do with the enormous flocks of Canada and snow geese that flew over on the day of the count, along with tundra swans.
A typical year produces 5,000 to 6,000 bird sightings and an average of 70 different species locally, Hoyson said.
If you can see them or identify them by hearing their calls, then they're countable, he said.
With such high numbers, it's inevitable that some uncommon or unique species will be encountered each year. In past years Hoyson's group has spotted numerous species uncommon to the area, such as the prairie warbler, yellow warbler and the Northern harrier – a hawk that breeds mainly in the northern United States and Canada.
We have a lot of unique habitats in our circle that allow for some interesting sightings, Hoyson said. The Plymouth Flats, for example, is a great area for field birds such as horned larks, American pipits, short-eared owls and harriers.
This year Hoyson said there have been reports of red crossbills, common redpolls and evening grosbeaks in the count circle area – all of which are uncommon.
The chance to see something new or unique is one reason why Hoyson has participated in the count year after year.
I'm a hunter and a fisherman and I love being outdoors. But with hunting, you're limited by the season. With birding, there's no closed season, Hoyson said. It's a lot like hunting because you're looking for the right habitats to find certain species of birds.
To view instructions on how to search for a circle and sign up for an open count, visit the Game Commission's website ( www.pgc.state.pa.us) and click on Wildlife in menu bar at the top of the homepage. Then choose Bird and Bird Conservation and select Christmas Bird Count under the Enjoying Birding list.