With the sound of duck hunters firing their guns in the distance, Kris Arcuri, Ed Bristow and Shirley DeMill were in a hunt of their own Saturday morning along the Absecon shore.
“It’s a red-tail (hawk) — did you see it, Ed?” Arcuri shouted at Bristow, who walked ahead of her. “I hope he stays so we can get a better look.”
Bristow lifted his binoculars toward the woods along the side of Burning Tree Boulevard, announcing a few seconds later that the hawk had disappeared.
“A blue jay just chased him,” Bristow said.
The three volunteers with the Atlantic County chapter of the National Audubon Society were among dozens participating Saturday in the first day of this year’s Christmas Bird Count. The annual tradition dates to 1900, when conservationists, concerned that the avian population was on the decline, sought to combat the annual holiday tradition of bird hunting with their own ritual.
The irony of hunters and bird counters working within earshot of each other struck Arcuri, 66, a retired teacher.
“They’re killing them, and we’re counting them,” she said after hoisting from her sport utility vehicle the tools she carried for her hunt: a scope and tripod.
Local birding enthusiasts marked their 61st Christmas count Saturday, covering parts of the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge and many seashore towns. Other counts across the region are scheduled for later in the month, including today in Cape May and Tuckerton and Dec. 30 in Barnegat Township, Cumberland County and the Marmora section of Upper Township.
Bristow, one of the founding members of the Atlantic County chapter of the Audubon Society, is marking his 40th count. The 84-year-old became interested in birds after moving to Absecon with his wife. He started out observing the birds in his backyard. It wasn’t until Bristow purchased a field guide to birds and binoculars offered through a book-of-the-month club that his interest in the subject took off.
Arcuri, who began participating in the counts 10 years ago, became interested after she invited Bristow to speak to her class about birds.
DeMill, 87, also enjoys birding, although a health condition limits her activity to tallying the number counted by Bristow and Arcuri.
According to last year’s Christmas Bird Count, brants, a type of goose, are the most abundant species in the area.
They also seemed plentiful this year.
“Oh, Ed, look on the horizon,” Arcuri said as her eyes settled on a distant line of brants in Absecon Bay. “There’s a zillion of them. It’s like a cloud.”
“I would venture to guess there’s thousands of them,” Bristow replied.
The three counted 44 brants and about 25 mallards in the area nearest to them, then pledged to travel around the bay toward the White Horse Pike to get closer to the larger flock.
One species Bristow and Arcuri said they missed this year was a peregrine falcon they’ve counted every year on an abandoned drive-in theater screen off the White Horse Pike.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to find that peregrine falcon,” Arcuri said.
For the most part, Hurricane Sandy didn’t have a lasting impact on the bird population, although they would have to wait until all of the counts are completed to analyze the data, Bristow said.
Arcuri said that immediately after Sandy, she saw at least one species she had never seen before, likely a refugee from the storm who had temporarily been displaced.
“An oriole was on my feeder for three days,” she said. “I’ve lived in my house for 40 years, and I never got an oriole.”
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