If your child plays with that toy he's been wanting for more than an hour on Christmas morning, it would be unusual. I'm guessing the attention span for most children who open their Christmas gifts that day will be much, much less.

Adult gifts can be just as hard to buy. One of the funniest commercials we've seen this year is the MasterCard Priceless Gift one featuring pro football star Peyton Manning. He's at a party with some friends and gives a not-so-perfect gift – a football mouth guard ... to a female. He eagerly tries to persuade her to try it.

In another scene, he gives his friend a wrapped football that anyone could recognize by its shape.

"Go ahead. You'll never guess what it is!" Payton says excitedly.

Finding that perfect gift is still one of the great challenges for many of us in the Christmas season. But for a group of outdoor enthusiasts, this time of year could be considered their Super Bowl of sorts. It may not provide the instant rush of a Peyton Manning touchdown pass, but to some bird watchers, it's just as special.

The Audobon Society's Annual Christmas Bird Count, which begins next Monday, gives persons who love the outdoors a chance to make a contribution to conservation. The data collected in this wildlife census allows researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

Dan Brauning, Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Section supervisor, says that when combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, this count provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed over the past 100 years.

Although everyone can participate, the bird count is a well-coordinated activity. Local counts will occur on one day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. Each count takes place within "Count Circles," focusing on specific geographical areas.

Each circle is led by a "Count Compiler," who is an experienced birdwatcher. Those who live within the boundaries of a Count Circle can even stay at home and report the birds that visit their backyard feeders.

Brauning is excited about the rewards.

"Bird enthusiasts, armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists, will head out on an annual mission – often before dawn – to make a difference and to experience the beauty of creation," he says.

The first step for a prospective helper is to locate and contact a local Count Compiler to find out how you can volunteer.

To view instructions on how to search for a circle and sign-up for an open count, visit the Game Commission's website (www.pgc.state.pa.us) and click on "Wildlife" in the left-hand column, and then choose the "Christmas Bird Count" icon in the center of the page.

There are many benefits, not the least of which allows persons, young and old, to appreciate the great outdoors, embark on an activity that promotes health and fitness, while also providing an important service to wildlife officials.

And all these benefits are free!

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com