HOMER -- It was nearly 10 a.m. before the clouds pinked over the mountains and the woods' creatures began to rouse. The scoldings of red squirrels broke the silence, then the small twitterings of unseen birds. The best birder among us recognized the calls of golden-crowned kinglets, and then two of the tiny birds accommodated us by flitting between trees.
Thus, after a long walk on an icy trail, on a warm (37 degrees) and overcast morning, just one day short of winter solstice, we had the first bird for our list.
In Homer, participants in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count had gathered at the Islands and Ocean Visitors Center while the outside world was still dark. Following the protocol that makes the Christmas Bird Count, begun in 1900, the longest-running citizen science effort in North America, we divided into teams to cover an area within a 15-mile-diameter circle — except that we wouldn't travel onto the bay in boats.
The Homer count has been continuous since the early 1970s, and this year included about 30 participants, plus "feeder watchers" who call in observations from their windows. As one of 2,200 groups (30 in Alaska) taking part in the winter census, Homer birders contribute to an understanding of population trends and the conservation of birds and their habitats. They also have a good time.
My group of three, assigned a stretch west from Homer and south of the Sterling Highway, failed to hear or see any owls, or much of anything, at our first stop. As the sky lightened, we drove up and down steep roads and in and out of neighborhoods, stopping at likely habitats, listening and looking. A flock of pine grosbeaks, a tree full of pine siskins attacking cones, our first bald eagle.
I was the first to spot a red-breasted nuthatch on the side of a tree nearly vibrating with siskin activity and felt unreasonably proud of myself. I'm getting to where I might identify as something more than a beginning birder.
It was a quiet day, bird-wise, and it took us a long time to find even a black-capped chickadee.
Winter birding, of course, is limited in the north. This is one reason I like it; I can expect to recognize most birds I'll see, given enough light. Homer, compared to the rest of the state, has just enough species to be interesting, and there seem always to be surprises — like the displaced American coot that's been hanging around Beluga Slough for weeks, or the emperor geese that visited the Homer Spit a few years ago.
The final count is 62 species in Homer. That compares to Fairbanks, which sees about 25, and Prudhoe Bay, which sees exactly one — the raven.
When we stopped on a side road near the bluff, we set up our scope. The weather forecast called for gale-force winds, but they hadn't arrived and the bay was nicely calm. Huge rafts of black scoters darkened the water. We picked out some of the other two scoter species — white-winged and surf — among them. We spotted a horned grebe, and a cormorant flying over.
By noon we had 10 species. The mountains across the bay shone spectacularly white and blue sky peeked from the west.
From the overlook at Baycrest Hill and the bluffs toward town, we added more marine species — several ducks, a gull, common and Pacific loons.
Cruising neighborhoods, we spotted a few chickadees, lots of yakking magpies, crows, more eagles sitting regally on treetops. Yard feeders full of seeds were surprisingly quiet; the only bird we saw near one was a magpie.
It was already getting dark again. With heavy gray skies and the lack of snow, our latitude must never have known a darker solstice. We hadn't seen anything that really thrilled us — but, as they say, every day spent birding is a good day.
In town, we turned off the highway to devote our last hour to Old Town and Bishop's Beach. And there — just beside St. John's Church — stood a tree I'd never even noticed before. The huge crabapple looked like Christmas itself — still-green leaves mingled with berry-like clusters of red fruit. On that tree, in the heart of downtown Homer, Bohemian waxwings —at least 50 by our count — swung and gobbled and chattered, their own crayon-colored brightnesses catching the last light. Seven very plump American robins fluttered back and forth between the ground and lower branches.
Sometimes the best does come last.
Back at the visitors center, we reassembled. My group reported our 23 species and turned in our totals. Altogether, the tally was 58 species, with perhaps a few more to be called in or confirmed. It was a good year for finches, with white-winged crossbills counted in the thousands. Hawks and owls that had been prevalent during the snowshoe hare peak were noticeably absent. One horned puffin was spotted on the bay and a Townsend's warbler in town. Varied thrushes were heard singing, as though they were confused by the weather and thought it was already spring.
And one coot was still lost at Beluga Slough.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days" and "Early Warming."