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Countless

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IN the beginning was the bird, as watchers say. We were hunters three, and a-hunting we went, in a land transformed by snowfall. Our object was to identify and total up whatever wild feathered creatures we should see as participants in the annual National Audubon tabulation known as the Christmas Count. Enthusiasts were engaged in similar pursuit throughout the country, but we were just us, alone in a specially assigned corner of the world. From daybreak to dusk, armed with binoculars, we covered a territory of Christmas-card scenes, each sliding into another. Reality phased into fantasy, right in front of us.

A sunlit Sunday was never more dazzling, nor smelled more fresh, nor sounded so mystically muffled. Our quest began in an area adjacent to suburban backyards. It was too early for aught but a few dogs to notice us as we noticed birds.

And birds there were, at that hour, excitingly visible to the three of us standing on the edge of a partially frozen waterway. The pristine panorama produced a breathtaking variety of breakfast seekers: regal kingfishers, handsome blue jays, brilliant cardinals, even common crows uncommonly etched against white-capped branches.

On an icy bank, a pensive orange cat eyed two mallards as the pair paddled on the pond imperviously. In turn, a night heron eyed the cat from its stance opposite. We heard, then saw, a mock-ingbird - just one, as so often happens - on a snow-clad treetop. Our delight was furthered, as we trudged on, by the sighting of a flock of robins, a contingent apparently loyal to the region.

Nothing was predictable; everything was a surprise (this is bird watching in essence). Phragmites, those fine, tall weeds, surrounded us with their temporary frostings. A chickadee alighted, his fractional weight dislodging the fragile white covering as he balanced on a stalk bent with its burden of bird and snow.

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