The old man stood in the bright chill of a December afternoon, wearing a thin topcoat, a gray walking hat and the look of someone very far away.

"It was a French coal-burning ship and it took 28 or 29 days to get there," said Phil DuMont, recalling an expedition to Madagascar 55 years ago to collect birds and mammals for the American Museum of Natural History. "There were three of us and 42 porters. Each of us had two teams of porters to carry us through the jungle. That's the way they did things back then. Of course, we mostly walked."

Last weekend, in the wilderness of Chevy Chase, DuMont, 81, gathered with other rare and distinctive birders to celebrate the Audubon Naturalist Society's 87th year and 15th annual holiday fair.

Books, birdseed and crafts were sold to support the society and maintain Woodend, the 40-acre Audubon headquarters that still supports much of the wildlife Algonquin Indians hunted 350 years ago.

"This is really an urban sanctuary," said member Bob Lavell, showing slides in the second story of a Georgian mansion designed by John Russell Pope, the architect who designed the Jefferson Memorial. The mansion and the former tobacco farm that stretches below it, across Jones Mill Road to Rock Creek Park, were left to the society in 1968.

There are few places within a day's drive of Washington that offer such varied wildness as Woodend. A hiking trail approximately three-fourths of a mile long will lead you through old farm fields, a coniferous forest, deciduous woods and past a small pond. Foxes, cottontails, woodchucks and more than 25 species of native birds, from common flickers to rufous-sided towhees, nest there.

But the metropolitan area is rich with good hiking trails. The society's real value lies in activities conducted by and for its members. You could spend the best part of a year attending its natural history lectures, wildlife art exhibits and nature education programs. And not just about birds.

This fall, you missed experts lecturing on chemical warfare among insects, China's giant pandas, and the flora on Nonsuch Island near Bermuda. Courses in basic biology, geology, wildlife ecology and birds of prey were offered in the natural history field studies program, cosponsored by the USDA graduate school. Then there are children's classes and field trips for adults to major ecosystems.

The Audubon Naturalist Society is a local organization of 7,000 members, independent of the National Audubon Society, which has its headquarters in New York. Both are named after John James Audubon, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and a Breton peasant woman. According to one legend, Audubon was the long-lost Dauphin of France, son of Louis XVI.

Since October, the National Gallery of Art has had a display of John James Audubon's paintings and sketches on exhibit at the west building. The show is there until August 1985.

Born in Haiti in 1785, Audubon came to the United States in 1803 to avoid conscription during the Napoleonic Wars. He became one of America's most famous ornithologists and painters of birds. Like other ornithologists of that era, Audubon used a shotgun to render his subjects still for close observation.

"Since then, we've found other ways to do that," said a society official this weekend at Woodend, where one room contains 300 birds, from bald eagles to blue-winged teals, stuffed and mounted behind glass.

The change in the relationship between ornithologists and their subjects was made easier by the development of high grade, lightweight binoculars and sophisticated photographic equipment. But when Phil DuMont was sent to Madagascar in 1929, one of his major tools was a shotgun.

For six months, he and two other field workers hunted the South Pacific island for rare species of birds and mammals. The specimens were dried and sent back to the United States to be studied and displayed in museums.

After that expedition, DuMont returned home, attended graduate school at California-Berkeley and began a 37-year career with the Fish and Wildlife Service. He has birded in all 50 states, but don't ask how many species he has spotted.

"I started to get my list up-to-date a few years ago," DuMont said. "But I'm only up to 1939."