What is worth a 5 a.m. boat ride in 40-degree weather on one of the shortest, darkest days of the year?

Answer: the chance to participate in the annual Christmas Bird Count on St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge, one of Florida’s wildest, most spectacular publicly-owned landscapes.

Some years, as we motor across the pass to the Refuge, we maneuver through dense fog; other years, there is a swath of stars overhead. This year, it was just plain cold. Waves slap the bow of the boat, and only a few blinking red lights guide us to our destination in the pre-dawn, pitch dark. One of our team shines a powerful spotlight to guide refuge biologist Brad Smith to the dock. When we reach land, we load a day’s supply of food, optical equipment, extra warm clothes, and hot tea into a truck and drive nine miles east, the length of the island. We stop at the edge of the creek where we listen for the first birds we will tally - a hooting pair of great horned owls.

On this 118th annual Christmas Bird Count, we know that we join with tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas. We know that our effort will help the Refuge, the National Audubon Society and others to assess the health of bird populations, and help guide conservation action.

Just before the rise of the sun, our team of five arrives at the shore of West Pass. Then the counting begins in earnest: we see morning flights of great and snowy egrets, Forster's terns, double-crested cormorants and sea ducks sprint across the horizon.

By day’s end, we will have walked five or more miles, spotting scopes and binoculars slung over our shoulders. We will tally 79 different species of wild birds (and see no other human beings!). We will shout out numbers of eagles and white ibis and hawks rising over the broad marshes west of Tahiti Beach. We will search for rare sparrows in the black needle rush, and look for feeding guilds of warblers (pine, yellow-throated, yellow-rumped and more), nuthatches, and woodpeckers in the small oak trees.

We will wonder where the horned grebes are this year. We will worry about the absence of American oystercatchers. We will be amazed by a lone sandhill crane flying far overhead, and a single wood stork standing among the egrets. And we will be so grateful for the privilege of exploring this marvelous refuge, and for the steadfast protection of its irreplaceable habitat and wild birds by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The value of the Christmas Bird Count and other annual service is in the long-term trends we can detect from them. You can learn more about the counts, and take a look at the information they generate, at www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count

Big thanks to the 2017 participants in the St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge territories of the Apalachicola count - Brad Smith, Jeff Chanton, Debbie Segal, Bob Knight, Grayal Farr, Brad Hartman, Kathryn Ziewitz, Kennard Watson and Beth Wright.

For more information about St Vincent NWR, go to: www.stvincentfriends.com