GOULDSBORO — Jan. 1 marked one of the coldest New Year’s Days on record in Maine.
But about 30 minutes before sunrise, as the temperature hovered below zero, 20 bird watchers scattered across the Schoodic Peninsula from parts of Hancock to Corea.
The holiday marked a Schoodic tradition: the Christmas Bird Count, which happens to be held each year on Jan. 1.
For the past 49 years, Bill Townsend ran this bird count project. Each year, the National Audubon Society hosts the Christmas Bird Count, in which affiliates across the United States send back data on birds observed in a 24-hour period.
After splitting up into six teams covering the designated bird-watching area, the 20 participants spread out. By the end of the day — they wrapped around 4:30 p.m. — the group counted 2,397 birds representing 56 species.
That data is used to track the bird life across North America. Locally, Townsend said, it also has allowed him to keep track of changes in bird populations.
For example, the area used to be mostly northern birds like gray jays. There were never cardinals. But as more homes were built and the area became more suburban, he said, suddenly there were many cardinals and fewer gray jays.
Another example of how species change, he said, is that gulls used to be common. But when the sardine cannery closed in 2010, the gulls stopped flocking to the Gouldsboro area.
In 1969, just after he moved to the area to work as a biology teacher at Sumner Memorial High School, Townsend began hosting the annual trek to count the area’s birds.
This year, though, marked a change for him. For the first time, he co-compiled the results instead of running the event himself. That’s because going forward, the annual project will be led by Seth Benz, Schoodic Institute’s bird ecology program director. Townsend and Benz coordinated this year’s group together.
Benz said the cold forced many of the participants into their cars for much of the day. They could only get out for about three minutes, he said, and then they’d jump back in their cars.
“On our official field sheets, the lowest temperature turned in was minus 13, and the high was 6,” Benz said.
Despite that cold, birders scattered throughout the peninsula to make their count. Some stuck to Winter Harbor, and others were assigned to Prospect Harbor. Some walked to Little Moose Island during low tide, and others counted the birds that landed on their bird feeders.
For Townsend, this year wasn’t the most brutal winter birding excursion he’s endured. Some winters they battled blizzards, he said, and the weather fluctuates a lot year to year.
Each year he comes prepared, with an extra coat and boots in his car in case he needs to do some hiking.
Of Townsend’s nearly 50-year legacy, Benz said he was impressed that one person could do it each and every holiday. It means no partying on New Year’s Eve, he emphasized.
“That’s really Herculean for someone to do all those years,” he said.