Long before there was a hint of daylight Saturday morning, birders were filtering into the back roads, creeksides and trails of Southern Oregon on a mission that has endured since the days of their great-grandparents.
While the Rogue Valley slept, Norm Barrett, Jim Livaudais, Gary Shaffer and Howard Sands packed their binoculars, scopes and camera gear into Shaffer's Toyota Highlander and rolled toward TouVelle State Park, hoping to catch a glimpse — or at least the call — of nocturnal fowl in the Military Slough area in a 21-degree temperatures.
With the help of Shaffer's recorded bird calls, they discovered a Virginia rail, a sora rail and a western screech owl.
The four men were among an army numbering into the tens of thousands across the Western Hemisphere — all of them volunteers — taking part in the Audubon Society's annual Christmas Bird Count.
The citizen-science survey began 112 years ago, and the activity here traces back seven decades.
Staggered over a period of three weeks near Christmas, birders all across the hemisphere take a snapshot of the bird population inside a 15-mile circle on one given day. In Medford, that circle radiates out from the intersection of Crater Lake Highway and Highway 140, which has been the epicenter of Jackson County bird counting for 58 years.
Bird counters up in Grants Pass and down in Siskiyou County, Calif., also manned their circles Saturday. Counting day in the Ashland circle is Dec. 29.
"It's not scientific, but the numbers are relatively consistent," said Livaudais, whose group was assigned an area bounded by Avenue G, the Veteran's Affairs Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center & Clinics, Linn Road and the Rogue River.
They visited 10 areas during the day, logging every bird they could find. At times they would spot scores of birds, at others the birds appeared to be lying low.
"This gives us a general idea of what's out there," said Livaudais. "The weather conditions have an impact, too."
By 10 o'clock the quartet had noted nearly 50 species, with a long day still ahead. By day's end the tally neared 80.
"When it's this cold, they are all looking for food," said Barrett, as he recorded entries for white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and red-breasted sapsuckers.
At the Denman Wildlife Area south of TouVelle State Park, the counters gazed east, with snow-capped Mount McLoughlin forming the backdrop and steam rising above a Boise Cascade plant. A lone redtail hawk surveyed its surroundings before taking flight and looping out of sight. Moments later it reappeared in a tight aerial pattern with another redtail.
"When you see two, it could be a pair or it is one chasing the other out of its territory," Livaudais said. "If they are sitting near each other, they are probably paired."
Shaffer, retired geologist, says he got involved with the Christmas Bird Count about 15 years ago after talking to Sands at Wild Birds Unlimited in Medford. He said his most unusual sighting over the years was a loggerhead shrike — not to be confused with a northern shrike — sitting on a fence post along Highway 62.
"They have a tendency to attack small birds and eat them," Shaffer said. "It was looking for something to eat. They're not a raptor, but they are aggressive."
Hiking along the road to the Elk Club's picnic grounds, the group took a trail to the south bank of the rapidly flowing Rogue, not far from Upper Table Rock. Along the way, Barrett checked off a dozen or so species, including a hefty contingent of golden-crowned sparrows.
While searching for ducks, they spied a common merganser, one that's not so common in these parts. Many of the birds were pegged with their nomenclature in Britain, said Livaudais. As a result, if the species were common in that country, they were known as common no matter how rare elsewhere.
"The number of species we found were a little better than average," Barrett said. "But the number of birds was a little below average."
At the end of the day, volunteers gathered for the Count Down Dinner, where they compiled their finds into a list that will be forwarded to Cornell University in upstate New York.
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or email email@example.com.