There were probably six hundred Canada geese in the soccer fields behind Hillsborough High School, but John next to me in the backseat held the clipboard and liked to round to easy numbers. He put down five hundred while Dan sitting up front pressed binoculars against the fogged window and said there must be at least seven hundred if you looked all the way down past the baseball field. My father sat with his boot on the brake for five minutes, negotiating. He held the day five minutes longer so we could hold off for five more minutes the swinging open of the screen door and the push inside to sweat in our down vests and tell our wives and daughters and sons, or my mom, how the day was. When they asked, calling from the bathroom upstairs or halfway down the steps to the basement carrying crates of tired icicle Christmas lights, we would say good, good, and pull off our gloves. The number of Canada geese bodies shitting on the soccer fields wouldn’t matter anymore.
I do not call myself a birder. I am not that good at calling a bird by its name from its song or teasing flash through multiflora rose. I am a birdwatcher. It is accurate. It is my fun fact when I need one. I hope it means quirky, patient, curious. December 28, 2013 was my day to renew the title, good for another year. Years ago the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count sliced New Jersey up and handed Hillsborough Township to my father. On a given day in the wake of Christmas every year, my father is responsible for reporting the species and number of every witnessed bird in his territory. At six in the morning on the day of the Count his team stood single file in line at Dunkin Donuts: John, his old high school friend who works for a company that drills holes in the ground; Dan, a professor like my father whose sons needed to be up in West Nyack the next day for ice hockey; and me. I was there, splashing coffee up my nose. Pulling into the Sourland Mountain Preserve, I was there because to call myself a birdwatcher, but also because I love cold mornings and doing what my father asks of me.
The National Audubon Society website told me I was one of over sixty thousand pairs of eyes in the field in one of over two thousand research sites. To be a single data point is to feel very small, and it was hard to feel part of something big when I stood in a mud-frozen field with three men who shoved their hands into their pockets and stared into cedar brush, wanting to believe they saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker shuffle inside. I’d never read any of the reports, analyses.
I don’t trust my eyes. They too easily aggrandize: I mislabel a swooping red tailed hawk a northern harrier. They too easily dismiss: I write off a field sparrow as another white-throated. On the day of the Count I used no names. I didn’t want to be wrong. I stood by my father and cupped my binoculars speaking only irrefutable truths. The bird in my sight had a white stripe under its wing, a light breast, a thick beak. My father made a declaration. Dan tried to page through his field guide with cold swollen fingers, holding his glove in his armpit, grunting in agreement. John scratched a tally mark with his pencil on the spreadsheet stuck to the clipboard. We stood in lines and took the jobs we could.
Two hours later we leaned on a lichened wood fence lining a drainage ditch behind a row of townhouses by Beekman Lane. Two years before we’d seen a killdeer, stick-legged shorebird, among the geese skittering down the concrete cut into the grass. This year we paced up and down the lawn. The killdeer stood us up. Passing minivans slowed on Beekman Lane, careful to nudge past the unsmiling men on the curb who faced the green. I wondered if children in booster seats asked their mothers what we watched for. I wondered what I would tell them if they asked me. I could not shake the aggressive futility of our commitment to count all the birds. My father said he knew another spot for the killdeer. When we all nodded solemnly I laughed imagining myself asking what the point was. That question, the great deflator, is always there, unspoken. It is the unwritten preface to every field guide to birds. It is penned in invisible ink above the “life list,” the long roster of all the guide’s bird species in binomial nomenclature printed beside little empty boxes. On Christmas morning, I was twelve years old, my father slipped the new guide he had gifted me from my hands and dog-eared the pages of the life list.
We all had one, the four of us pissing in the bushes on government-owned green space, so I didn’t ask what the point was. Their answers would sound like mine: On a fourth grade Sunday I walked with my father the long way to Chimney Rock, down the trail to Buttermilk Falls then up the wide path to the paved overlook hooked out over the bluestone quarry, old enough to have always been there but before I believed it could really eat a whole mountain. Chimney Rock stuck out jagged from a bed of broken beer bottles, spray-painted red, white, blue, and then inexplicable green. That was the foreground, pasted on bluest sky partitioned by crossed jet contrails. In canvas camp chairs women in high-waisted hiking pants and wide brimmed sunhats folded themselves over squat scopes set to see just over the ridge where vultures dipped in, out. Another shape slipped out fast from the flock, and the women stood up to ask, TV? TV? It took me a few minutes to realize TV meant turkey vulture. One woman said peregrine falcon and half a dozen field guides cracked open to that page where the watercolor falcon with angled wings spread shares white space with the kites and the merlin. They left the scopes and dropped their sunhats and leaned over the rust metal railings, hands over their foreheads. The falcon moved too fast for my narrow binocular view. I trusted the V-shape riding parallel to jet vectors was what the women called it, a peregrine falcon. One woman turned and asked me if this was my first. I nodded. She held her hands over her chest and smiled, knelt down in the dirt and the glass and hugged me. She pulled away and held her hands behind my neck and told me my first falcon was beautiful. I had to agree.
I’ve never called a bird ugly. They’re always beautiful, because we can’t tell the difference and also because any specimens that let us check off empty boxes on our life lists are beautiful to us. Before we stopped for lunch on the day of the Count we parked in front of a split level home in a neighborhood with narrow streets, watching the bustle around a suet feeder nailed to a front lawn pine. An elderly woman sitting on a couch facing the wide front window looked up from whatever magazine she held in her lap to see four men in a Honda with binoculars at their eyes. She stood up and, very still, called for her husband. He shuffled in from the right. They stood side by side in the living room, watching us watch woodpeckers feast on their front lawn. We watched each other and no one saw the same thing.
I know my eye did not distinguish the downy woodpecker near the trunk from the hairy woodpecker on the branch, and I am sure my father did not notice the couple in the window with wide mouths and fingertips smoothing nervously over phone receivers. If someone wrote a list of all the kinds of people there are and printed it with little empty boxes, maybe men like my father would be more interested in looking at each other and calling each other beautiful. We can’t unmeet the people we’ve met or unsee the birds we’ve seen, even if we erase the check marks. The Count gave me the only kind of knowledge I can really own: On December 28, 2013, in the artificial pond between the condominium complex and realty office across from Hillsborough High School, a hooded merganser waded among the Canada geese and mallard ducks. I do not have to read the annual report to know that it was beautiful.
At night my father typed up and emailed the forty species we’d seen, and I read the reply from the Count organizer. He said that the father of the man responsible for Bound Brook territory died the day before. The son still went out watching for a while. The organizer finished the son’s work. At day’s end he saw a bald eagle break from a group of turkey vultures. He called it a good day.
I remembered my sadness when I learned that John James Audubon shot every bird he painted. He said the “moment a bird was dead, no matter how beautiful it had been in life, the pleasure of possession became blunted for me.” Audubon endured the blunted pleasures— he did not stop painting. He knew the work was important enough. When I told my father what I’d learned about John James Audubon he sat up in his armchair, nodded his head, grimaced. I did not tell him what I’d read in the Count organizer’s email.
Next year over sixty thousand counters will go out counting again because they think it’s important. All year I try to decide why the Count matters. On the day of the Count I can’t think of any way it doesn’t. I stop seeing and start watching, learning to call birds not by names but by what they are. And— I never get tired saying it— everything is beautiful.
Long before and after the numbers stop mattering, this mattered: In early December I walked home to my dorm after dinner with the girl I liked. I told her I watched birds and she said if I really watched birds I should know to call myself a birder. She kept walking and I ran up to my room to thumb through field guides. I imagined I flipped to my life list of all kinds of people. I thought I found the name that fit the shapes and signs. I thought I this could be love, but I knew it didn’t need to be. The V-shape breaking fast from the flock is a peregrine falcon even when it’s not, as long as she holds you, smiles, looks you in the eye, and tells you what to call it.