SAVANNAH — Two great horned owls court by the light of the moon and the stars, hooting and wooing from dusk until dawn. A male and a female, they finish this lovers' talk between 6 and 7 a.m. Monday — just in time for some volunteers to hear and identify them for the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count.

Five bundled birders crunch through the snow at the Montezuma Audubon Center in Savannah, pausing now and then to hear the lower notes of the male and the higher-pitched response from the female. 

Chris Lajewski, the center's director, tells the group to look out for candlelight in the trees, and Environmental Education Specialist Donna Richardson says to watch the snow for discarded champagne glasses. Everyone laughs. As the group inches closer to the flirting pair of lovebirds, the stars begin to fade and the sun inches over the horizon. 

In its 117th year, the Christmas Bird Count is considered the longest-going citizen science wildlife survey in the world, Lajewski said. This is Montezuma's 58th year participating, helping the Audubon gather data on bird populations and their movements. It's a global effort. Last year, there were 1,902 counts in the United States, 471 in Canada and 132 in Latin America, the Caribbean, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands. Data collected has been used in more than 200 scientific articles, and some of the news from those findings is disturbing.

"This is all fun, and it's always enjoyable to count birds," Lajewski said, "but it's really leading to scientific studies that birds are really moving northward."

That's mostly due to climate change, Lajewski added. With a warming planet, birds are moving north, but there's only so much space. Bobolinks, for example, are migrating north, and Lajewski said that's a problem because bobolinks typically thrive in fields. Northern habitat is mostly boreal forests, so it remains to be seen if the birds could adapt to that kind of habitat, he said. 

"It's never been easier to be a citizen scientist, and it's never been more important to be one," said David Yarnold, president and CEO of Audubon, in a press release. "Birds and the people who watch them are noticing changes. Using the data gathered by more than a century of Christmas Bird Counts, Audubon will keep protecting birds and the places they need."

Doug and Gail Luke, of Clyde, have been birding for about six or seven years, and Monday was their fourth Christmas Bird Count. The husband and wife were two of about 36 volunteers who signed up to count birds throughout 10 zones spanning Cayuga, Seneca and Wayne counties. 

"We like to go out just hiking outside," Doug said. "We've had bird feeders in our backyard for a while. We like seeing what a different variety there is."

Gail said this year's count was the first time she had heard a great horned owl in the wild. 

But once the owls called it a night, songbirds started their day. Back at the center, Richardson sprinkled bird seed in feeders and on the lawn. Chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, sparrows, blue jays and one red-bellied woodpecker descended on the buffet. Besides counting those, volunteers spotted two red-tailed hawks in the trees along the edge of the center's field.

Once warmed up, the birders took to the cold outdoors again, this time by sunlight.

With a spotting scope held close to his chest, Lajewski led the group into the woods. He stopped and imitated calls, most often making a "swish swish" noise to attract nosy black-capped chickadees. A few curious birds popped out of the frosty branches. Despite being a relatively common bird to see, volunteers stopped in wonder, looking up overhead and peering through the globs of new fallen snow clinging to the trees. With the chilly temperatures, there was very little open water to attract as many water fowl as in previous years. By mid-afternoon, Lajewski's group had seen about 30 different species, including bald eagles and trumpeter swans.

There were still hours of counting to go, with a chili dinner to look forward to at the end of the day. But until then, all that mattered was the chips of chickadees, the long glide of a hawk and coaxing out feathered friends to count and admire. 

Staff writer Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or gwendolyn.craig@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1.

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County Government Reporter