The early bird may catch the worm, but late-riser Charles Sontag catches the bird.
Sontag, a retired college biology professor, has been catching — or more accurately, spotting — everything from finches to snowy owls in Wisconsin for more than 65 years.
"I am not an early person," said Sontag, who lives near the lakefront in Manitowoc. "My favorite time is the evening birding....I've never seen a bird at 4 in the morning. I've enjoyed much more at 4 in the afternoon or 8 in the evening."
Sontag is one of thousands across the state who will be training their eyes to the skies as part of the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count. Now in its 114th year, the count is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world.
Last year, more than 70,000 people participated in the count at nearly 2,000 sites across North America, including 112 in Wisconsin.
Last year also presented a major first for Wisconsin, with the merging of the National Audubon Society's count and the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology's count. In the past, because the Audubon society asked for $5 from each participant, the WSO hosted its own free count.
The merge, which came when Audubon dropped its participant fee, helped establish Wisconsin as a bird-counting powerhouse.
"We almost have as many counts as Texas or California, and we certainly surpass them in the percent of the state that's covered," said Carl Schroeder, who is now serving his fifth year as the National Audubon Society's regional editor for Wisconsin's Christmas count. "It's really reflective of the passion that exists in Wisconsin not just for Christmas bird counts but for wildlife or conservation."
Part of that passion, he said, is thanks to organizations like the WSO, which provides resources for both expert and novice bird-watchers to get involved.
"The reason the state ornithological society has this website to list all of the Christmas counts and all of the compilers is so that anyone who's interested in participating can contact the compiler and say, 'How can I help?'" said Carl Schwartz, president of the WSO.
The data collected by volunteers is invaluable for scientists.
"The Christmas Bird Count has provided us with an enormous amount of information on how birding populations have changed, and the way in which birds have responded to the changes we have engineered in their environment," Sontag said. "So they become very good indicators of what's happening to the environment and how that will ultimately impact us as well."
How to participate: Anyone can participate in the count, but you must register with a volunteer coordinator who is in charge of a particular 15-mile-diameter area in Wisconsin.
Coordinators schedule a 24-hour period for participants to observe birds in their area. During that time, observers carefully record not just the number of species, but all of the birds they see throughout the day.
According to Schwartz, getting plugged into a birding group or nature center is helpful if you're interested in bird-watching beyond the count.
"I think the best way for people to become better birders is to hang out with birders who are more experienced than they are," said Schwartz, who has been participating in the counts for 25 years. "That certainly is how I got started. I went out with other people at first, and not only learned the area but learned birds."
Where to go: Since the event started Dec. 14, some areas have already hosted their counts. But the count officially runs through Jan. 4, so there's still time.
In Manitowoc County, Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve will host a count for kids beginning at 9 a.m. Friday. Kids can learn birding basics at binocular boot camp, then those ages 8 to 16 can head out on the trails with experienced birders to participate in the count. Younger participants can take part in the Budding Birders program with an accompanying adult.
The nature center hosted the kids count, the first of its kind in Wisconsin, for the first time last year as part of an effort to get younger people interested in an activity whose demographics trend older.
"I think this kind of activity is really important to get young people involved in these kinds of interests and get the message out that the environment does count and is important," said Sontag, who is on Woodland Dunes' board of directors.
Sontag, 76, recalled how important the Benjamin F. Goss Bird Club in Waukesha was in cultivating his own interest at birding at the age of 9. "They took us in and really helped us develop our interest and skills in birding," he said.
What to look for: Right now, Sontag said most of what he's seeing are winter ducks — mergansers, common goldeneye — winter gulls — glaucous, great black-backed — and perching birds such as sparrows and finches. And of course, the beautiful snowy owl that has stolen the bird-watching spotlight this December.
According to Sontag, the snowy owl is Wisconsin's largest owl, weighing in at 4 pounds, compared with the next-largest, the great horned, at 3 pounds. They tend to stick to areas where they can easily find food, which is usually the lakefront.
"Manitowoc and Milwaukee and any of these lakeside communities have just really wonderful opportunities for them. They can usually find the food they need and the kind of protection to make it," he said.
Getting there:Woodland Dunes Nature Center and Preserve is at 3000 Hawthorne Ave., Two Rivers, about 1.5 hours north of Milwaukee via I-43.
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