When it comes to counting birds, a lot depends on the weather, but also whether or not volunteers grab their binoculars and notepads, head for the great outdoors and become citizen scientists for a day.
The National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count will take place in Greene County within a 15-mile radius around Clarksville on December 23 and a similar circle around Ryerson Station State Park on December 30. For this national count, bird watchers tally birds at their feeders, then drive the roads within these circles looking and listening for species that winter in the woodlands and waterways around the county.
The number of birds counted across the Northern Hemisphere in 24-hour periods from mid-December to early January is the data that Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society adds to its records, ongoing since 1900. Trends in populations are noted and environmental and weather conditions are studied for possible causes.
Greene County became part of the count in December 1958 when the late Ralph Bell of Clarksville measured out the first 15-mile circle. His bird watching friends (Mr. & Mrs. Orville Dayton, Mrs. Harry Enstrom, Ralph Horn, and John Tuckish) joined him for 10.5 hours of counting the many birds that feed and fly from dawn until dusk.
A Penn State University educated poultry farmer with a love of birds and science, Bell founded the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory in Dolly Sods WV in 1958 and banded more than 142,000 birds in his lifetime. His own meticulous recordkeeping, starting in 1927, was done by hand in big ledger books and traces both the daily weather at his farm and the numbers and species of birds he identified, banded and released. Many local and regional bird watchers owe their chops to being mentored by Bell and developing his fine ear for song and a eye for the tiny details that differentiate a tree sparrow from a song sparrow, a rock pigeon from a mourning dove.
Bell was 99 years old when he died at home on May 20, 2014. Three days after visiting with 70 of his bird watching friends who came for a spring migration count at his farm. He left behind a next generation of bird lovers who search the skies and listen in the hedgerows for what the birds have to say about the health of our planet.
In 2006, local watchers organized the Ralph K. Bell Bird Club in his honor. The club has a mission to share scientific information, coordinate bird watching events and educate a new generation of bird watchers, including children. To this end, the club offers scholarships to students who submit essays on the winter birds of Greene County.