Ralph Odell, 87, who lives in Putnam Valley, helped create the Putnam Christmas Bird Count in 1954. He has participated in each of the 66 counts since, including on Saturday (Jan. 2).
What got you involved in the bird count?
My family was always interested in natural history. We had friends in Bedford who had started Audubon there, and my father used to take me on birding trips they organized. A small group of us started a Christmas bird count here.
How did your first bird count compare with this year’s?
I covered Fahnestock State Park my first year. We saw about 75 species. One year I did Fahnestock alone, a 17-mile hike. It’s still my favorite local birding spot. This year, I did the count on my property in Putnam Valley; I keep my binoculars right on my dining room table. I did pretty well; I saw 19 species. Overall this year, the group saw 78 species on count day and four species during the week. In total, 12,350 birds were seen this year.
Have the variety and number of birds changed over the years?
They come and go. You know, birds don’t actually read the bird books! It depends on climate, habitat, food sources and what kind of breeding season they’ve had. If it was a bad breeding season, you’ll see fewer birds. In terms of numbers, they’re doing pretty well. Some species are in trouble — some of the duck species and some finch-type birds. You see some species not common to this area almost every year. Two years in a row we saw gray jays; they’re a great bird, very northern. We’ve seen goshawks occasionally, too.
How many species have you seen, during the Christmas count and beyond?
I probably have 700 species on my list. I’ve been birding in the Arctic, Greenland and Kenya. I get especially excited about pelagic species — sea birds, offshore species such as the albatross. But I’m always thrilled to see chickadees in my backyard, too, and the wood thrush in spring and summer. I’d like to see a condor; they’re much larger than eagles.
Has the bird-count group changed much over the years?
There were very few of us when we started it. I was 21. A couple of people were only 12 years old at the time, and they are still doing the count and some of their children and grandchildren have joined them. We’ve often held the countdown, compilation meeting and potluck dinner at my house. There are about 70 of us in the group now.