By JAMES DAMSCHRODER
The Union Democrat
People are trained to look forward as they move through life. But they may miss a world flying by above them.
Local Christmas bird counters annually try to open their eyes to the vastness of this overhead world, whose inhabitants dart around tree limbs and flutter in the chilled winter air.
Those bird count participants have discovered there is more to the world above than many see.
For 108 years, the Christmas Bird Count has drawn observers' eyes toward the early winter sky. The tradition started in 1900 by an ornithologist named Frank Chapman an early officer in the budding Audubon Society. It has grown from that first year's 27 counters to that of 2006, when more than 50,000 observers across the country peeked into the world of wings.
The count is used to recognize trends among different species in the area, said John Turner, vice president of the Central Sierra Audubon Society.
"There could be a downtrend in some species because of loss of habitat, or even West Nile," Turner added.
The counting season officially starts Friday and runs through Jan. 5.
There are three local bird counts. Sonora's will kick off the area's season on Saturday followed by Groveland's on Dec. 29, then Calaveras County's on Jan. 5.
On Tuesday afternoon, Sonora count coordinator Steven Umland surveyed the sky with his spotting scope outside of Jamestown on Algerine Road, an area included in Saturday's territory.
Umland has the benefit of 35 years of birding experience, and his trained eyes quickly paid dividends when he spotted a Merlin falcon perched on a treetop from a half-mile away.
"It just clicked," Umland said when asked how he got hooked on birding. "It just grabbed me. I love the outdoors."
As Umland walks down Algerine Road with his scope, he spots birds and names them with ease birds of which most could only say, "there's a small bird," or "there's a duck."
Instead, Umland says, "there's a European starling" or "there's a bufflehead."
The Christmas counts by dedicated birders like Umland contribute to the largest running database in ornithology chronicling more than a century of bird population trends in the United States.
Last year, local bird counts were extremely successful. In Sonora alone, 61 participants counted more than 24,000 birds of 108 species. In Calaveras County, 29 participants counted more than 9,000 birds of 94 species. This is the first year for the Groveland count.
In Sonora, the Brewer's blackbird was the most commonly spotted tallying 3,345 sightings. In the Calaveras count, American robins were spotted 1,502 times making it the most common.
The Groveland count offers a rare chance to explore uncharted territory from Groveland to Big Oak Flat and out over Don Pedro Reservoir.
"There's good potential of finding a rare bird," said Groveland count coordinator Bill Zachman.
He added that, because of the elevation changes and Lake Don Pedro, many different species of birds are attracted to the area.
Zachman got into birding 35 years ago when he bought a birding book for his children.
"The kids couldn't care less," Zachman said. "But I was hooked."