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.

As the sun heightened, a willful wind sprang up, causing a commotion above us. Branches forfeited their form-fitting adornments. Snow showers seemed a soft pelting of shaved diamonds between us and the sun.

Visibility regained, we trekked on, sampling sandwiches and snow. Despite the penetrating 15-degree weather, discomfort was discounted in the pleasure of sharing the natural treasury around us.

Countering the cold was part of the anticipation of this day. We were padded and puffed out, much like the winged ones themselves. As long as our mittened hands could support field glasses and our booted feet could fend against hidden pitfalls, we were avidly absorbed in our search.

We clambered through snow-covered back roads and open fields, noting tracks of wildlife and losing track of time. Exhilaration prompted an impulse to lie upon the spotless snow quilt and make a ``snow angel'' impression. One of us indulged the impulse.

Late afternoon, with its dropping temperature, yielded no countables. But our expectations were high, albeit nothing was stirring.

Struggling up the steep, slippery side of a reservoir, we came upon a sublime vista: nary a bird, but an expanse of untracked snowed-over ice to the horizon, smoothed by the hand of distance. Here was purity, a momentary pollution-free existence.

Only once was the perfection of the day spoiled. A plane shattered the stillness of approaching evening. One of us ruefully identified the interloper as ``a silver-sided gas hawk.''

As we headed back, barking dogs flushed a few Canada geese, which rose from a marsh with the awkward effort that belies their grace in flight.

The indignant noise of the geese contrasted with the quiet of a pair of barn owls that we ourselves had inadvertently flushed from under a highway bridge - the highlight of our expedition. We stood in awe as the heart-faced beauties flapped, ponderously yet silently past us, off to hunt in their own way.

How difficult, we agreed, to express the countless joys of the count. It was a day to experience.

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