Published by Quarto
Counting Birds begins “Frank Chapman loved birds,” but it might as well say “Heidi Stemple loves birds.” Because I do.
I was raised by a bird watcher. I began participating in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count with my father. We would get up at midnight and head out into the cold dark night to count owls. We did it for science, but, also I did it because it was something I could do with my Dad. One year I got the car stuck in a snow bank chasing a fox. One year, we broke the record of the most owls counted in our area. I believe that number was 34. My dad is gone now and I have a crew who owls with me. We call ourselves the OMG and we consist of KidLit writers, a professor, two photographers, and two teachers. OMG stands for Owl Moon Gang because, even before you knew me or my work, you may have known my story. I’m the little girl in the book Owl Moon which was written by my mother, author Jane Yolen.
I toyed with the idea of writing the story of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count for years. But, I didn’t know how to tell it. I tried a bunch of different ways until I realized this was Frank Chapman’s story, not mine. Mine has been told already! So, I sat down for three days in a small cabin in the woods (thank you Highlights Foundation) and wrote that first draft.
Counting Owls in Hatfield
(First Published in Compass Roads)
If we cared about cold,
we could feel it in our bones.
But, the count is on.
I push play
and a screech owl calls loudly
from the speaker hung around my neck.
We stand silently
in the middle of a snow-packed field
by the bend in the big river
where I used to swim across to Hadley.
We tilt our ears towards a sound
that might be owl,
but might be just a rustle of wind,
a scratch of dried leaf on bark.
A ghostly whinny finds its way
through the dark tangled wood.
I call to the screech owl
like my dad taught me
before we had recordings.
Back and forth we converse, the owl and I.
And suddenly, it’s as if
we are there alone—
not for science, but as old friends.
The sky explodes
in a thousand shooting stars.
Silently, I thank my father for this perfect moment.
Still, there are more owls to count.
We jump in the car and move on.
Cut Paper Pictures by Clover Robin
Other bird-related books by Heidi E.Y. Stemple:
You Nest Here With Me
Fly With Me