It was still dark and cold when Neil and Carleen Zimmerman bundled up and drove their car with the "I PISH" license plate to Discovery Park...

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It was still dark and cold when Neil and Carleen Zimmerman bundled up and drove their car with the “I PISH” license plate to Discovery Park. And pishing was exactly what they did Saturday on the biggest day of the year for birders: the Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count.

After a brief discussion with other volunteer counters, someone saw a northern saw-whet owl — “a cute little fellow” — and the Zimmermans were out among the trees at the park.

“Pishhhhh, pishhhhh, pishhhhh,” Neil Zimmerman called into the frigid air, mimicking a call birds use to alert each other to the presence of others.

Saturday, the Zimmermans, both 54 of Brier, and dozens of other bird lovers in the region, spread out over a 15-mile radius from Pioneer Square for the annual count, a tradition observed here for at least 50 years and nationwide for 107. The goal is to get as accurate as possible an idea of bird populations and whether they are healthy or declining. The numbers are fed into a national database and contribute to Audubon’s overall research, from which the society produces its endangered-bird lists.

With Neil Zimmerman leading, the birders count — a warbler here, wren there. He started at 6:30 a.m. with “owling,” because it was the time owls are supposed to be most active.

He pished again. There was no answer, only the hiss of boots on frozen grass and the crunch of boots on ice-crusted maple leaves.

Suddenly in the violet horizon, above a black silhouette of trees, there was a flash of white underbelly feathers. Something swooped low and flew into the meadow after prey.

Audubon information

The Washington State Audubon Society, along with the national society, is undertaking a $2 million renovation of the Tudor historical building at Seward Park for use as an environmental and Audubon center. Tentative opening is this summer. For more information on that, future Christmas Bird Counts and the society and its chapters, go to or

Check mark on a form: one barn owl.

Drama of natural world

To walk with the birders during the count, listening to the twitters and chirps, is to suddenly be aware of an avian universe full of multilingual sounds of communication, patterns of flights, of movement. Bird chirps suddenly emerge more specifically as the call of a spotted towhee, or a red-breasted nuthatch. The dark silhouette across the brightening sky becomes a pileated woodpecker, responsible for the holes drilled in dead timber. The generic little brown wren actually isn’t a wren at all but a brown creeper that hops up the trunks of trees. And the owl that calls “whoo-whoo” is a great horned, but most others screech instead — except the barred owl, whose call sounds like, “whooo, cooked for yoouuu?”

This and other knowledge birders share during the annual count as they ramble amicably through wooded pathways and meadows, self-described “bird heads” in love with just watching and listening to the drama of the natural world — from the stirrings of feathers to the distant barking protests of sea lions near the beach.

For Mason Rhoads, 64, of Magnolia, doing the Christmas bird count — his first — comes as a natural extension of his environmental concern. He’s a 10-year member of the society and sees birds as an indicator of overall environmental health.

His view is common, and the society has taken stands on a variety of issues, from asking a federal judge to bar logging on 50,000 acres of private land to protect it as an owl habitat, to supporting legislation that curbs surface mining.

Loss of forest has reduced the spotted-owl habitat, and now an influx of barred owls into remaining forests is further stressing the spotted owls, Zimmerman said.

Spotted owls are listed as endangered and of immediate concern by the Audubon Society, which carries more birds on its endangered list than either the federal or state governments. In Washington the society’s list includes: marbled murrelets, greater-sage and sharp-tailed grouse, American bitterns, several varieties of hawks, snowy plovers, long-billed curlews, vesper sparrows and many others.

“Owls are magical”

For people like the Zimmermans, the Christmas Bird Count — which can occur any day within two weeks of Christmas — is “birding with a purpose,” Neil said.

The Zimmermans have come to know birds and their habitats like they might their neighbors. If the birds are flourishing, it’s a sign of neighborhood health. If they have abandoned their homes, it might be cause to worry.

Carleen Zimmerman especially likes owls. With their raggedy feathered wings, they can fly silently overhead, gliding through the night — unlike other large birds, which stir the air and alert small animals below to their presence.

“Owls are magical,” she said.

Last year’s national bird count showed an increase in snowy owls found throughout the Pacific Northwest, which the Audubon Society theorized might have resulted from a decrease in the Arctic rodent population upon which they customarily feed, causing them to move south.

This year, the question will be what impact, if any, the December windstorm had on the bird population.

The sun was brilliant on the sharply cold morning. Neil Zimmerman stopped along the trail to listen. He pished, then heard: kick-kick-kick-kick. A nuthatch appeared, then a golden-crowned sparrow.

Looking into the brush, breath coming in steamy gusts, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was 50 in there.”

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or