Jay Sheppard was pishing in the bushes when a yellowthroat popped up and made his day.

"Pish, pish, pish," said Sheppard, pursing his lips to make the breathy noise bird watchers use to put warblers in a panic.

"They have some kind of herding instinct in the presence of danger," he said. "See how they all come out of the myrtle?"

Suddenly, there it stood, a handsome little yellowthroat perched on a branch, bright-breasted and clearly out of place among its duller peers.

It was an unexpected find on the annual Christmas bird count because yellowthroats eat bugs, and there aren't many bugs around these parts three days after most Christmases.

"He's going to have a hard time of it this winter," said Sheppard, who in contrast was having an unexpectedly easy time as sunshine and mild south winds comforted him in his labors, dawn to dusk.

This marked the 13th and most pleasant year that Sheppard, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency, had quit the comfort of his Laurel home in the dead of winter to join a throng of birders in Maryland's best birding spot, Ocean City, as part of the Audubon Society's national Christmas bird count, in which 30,000 people participate.

There have been good times and bad. Sheppard's "beat" within the 15-mile circle that the count covers is downtown, with particular attention to the rock jetty that extends into the sea from Maryland's only ocean inlet.

"One year there were 50 mile-an-hour easterly winds," said Sheppard. "I walked out to the end of the jetty, set up my scope and was looking through it when I realized water was above me. I just had time to grab the scope and protect my binoculars before the wave drenched me. That was the last time I went on the jetty that day." As for discoveries, perhaps the best came as Sheppard took a break from staring out to sea one year and found an eared grebe paddling practically at his feet.

Eared grebes winter in inland waters from Colorado to California, so this bird was utterly out of place. Sheppard guessed it was among the 1 or 2 percent of any species that "Mother Nature sacrifices," as he put it, by sending them to new climes in hopes of opening new habitat.

He would not respond to the assertion that bird watchers who stand on the end of sea jetties in 50 mph winter storms could be the human equivalent.

The Christmas count originated at the turn of the century in New York, when Auduboners gathered to stalk birds in Central Park and work off their holiday dinners.

It has grown every year since and is particularly popular in Maryland, which has 36 count circles, one of the highest densities of counts per square mile in the country.

Ocean City gets the highest species count in Maryland because of its habitat diversity, with ocean, bay, marsh, farmland and woods species all on hand, Sheppard said.

For that reason it attracts not only Marylanders but also birders from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Delaware.

"This is probably the best birding inlet on the East Coast outside of Florida," said Henry Armistead, who drove from Philadelphia in a huge van with "OSPREY" license tags and bumper stickers advertising the Nature Conservancy, the Hawk Migration Association, the International Crane Foundation and the Phillies.

The bushy-bearded Armistead, like many of the birders in Ocean City, was making an Eastern Shore tour, hitting five straight counts on five straight days, from Cambridge to Crisfield to Ocean City to Chincoteague to Cape Charles.

He said the Christmas counts have a mildly scientific function, in that they chronicle gross changes in species distribution. For example, he said, snowy egrets are commonly seen in Ocean City now, while a decade ago they were rare. That, he said, fits in with a general trend among herons to winter further north.

And peregrine falcons are occasionally sighted, as one was this year, perched in the Coast Guard's radio tower near the inlet. Peregrines were almost extinct 10 years ago, victims of the pesticide DDT before its use was banned.

But mostly, Armistead and Sheppard agreed, the bird count is a social and recreational event, in which birders get to pursue their normally solitary pleasures en masse.

And ad infinitum.

"Three down," said a weary, happy Armistead at day's end, as the birders gathered to dine and tally up, "and two to go."