While most people were checking items off their holiday lists last weekend, Ron Kegel was creating a list of his own. Unconcerned about toys or electronics, Kegel was searching for mergansers and snow geese.
A member of the Gloucester County nature club, Kegel organized its annual Christmas bird count last Saturday. Despite frigid temperatures at 5 a.m., Kegel, a 55-year-old nursery worker from Clayton, was raring to go.
The Christmas bird count is an early winter census conducted across North America each year. Organized by the National Audubon Society, it involves volunteers in hundreds of locations throughout the United States, Canada and South America, who spend a day counting every bird they see or hear in a designated 15-mile area.
Two hours before sunrise, Kegel set forth with binoculars, flashlight and an old tape recorder cued to play owl calls. He had been looking forward to this for some time.
"Personally, I love the owling part of it," he said. "It's cold; it's spooky, but it's a great time."
Kegel had bagged seven screech owls and two great horned owls by 6:45 a.m.
In the earliest days of the event - more than a hundred years ago - participants literally bagged birds. Teams competed to shoot as many as they could, and victory went to the group with the most feathery corpses.
In 1900, noted ornithologist Frank Chapman recognized the toll the practice was taking and proposed to count, rather than shoot, birds on Christmas Day.
More recently, the exercise has added a scientific purpose. The Audubon Society analyzes the bird counts to study trends in population and habit. Jeff Wells, senior scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative based in Seattle, said winter is a good time to count because birds are done migrating.
Eric Stiles, a vice president with the New Jersey Audubon Society, said the event allowed ordinary people to contribute to ornithology.
"These aren't Ph.D.s going out and doing things," Stiles said. "They may work on Wall Street, or they may be a stay-at-home mom."
Beth Graham, a teacher's assistant from Woodstown who took up birding less than two years ago, joined Kegel after sun-up. She said she took part because she enjoys it but also because she feels she's conducting scientific research.
For Karen Kravchuck, president of the nature club and a hair dresser by trade, birding is a chance to deal with plumage of a different kind.
Kravchuck speaks proudly of the club, an all-volunteer organization founded in 1949. It conducts monthly field trips, including moonlight walks and Pine Barren hikes. There's even an annual vulture festival.
Last Saturday, roughly 50 volunteers showed up to scour the 15-mile area surrounding the intersection of the New Jersey Turnpike and Wolfert Station Road in East Greenwich.
On Kegel's route, new housing developments had sprouted since last year. In fact, Kegel has seen a lot of changes in his 20-plus years as a birder. When the nature club got involved in the count in 1951, there were upward of 5,000 ruddy ducks, a small duck with a spiky tail. "You're lucky to find 5 to 10 these days," Kegel said.
Stiles said data from bird counts are important in tracking global warming. Many birds are migrating sooner or breeding earlier, and 30 percent of bird species are at risk of extinction by the end of this century.
However, some species have increased, including the black vulture, Carolina wren, and red-bellied woodpecker.
As of Monday night, the club's totals included 101 species, a record for the area, with some volunteers yet to be heard from. Ninety-two species were spotted last year.
"There's something magical about the outdoors and nature and being able to see things in their environment," Kegel said. "I wish everyone could experience this."