Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Holiday Tradition: The Annual Christmas Bird Count

The freshly fallen snow has gently coated (well at least for a few hours!) the Adirondack woodlands and fields around our neighborhood. Time to brush off the binoculars, grab the field guides, and find those mittens and wool tuque.

It’s Christmas Bird Count time! I thought I would give a few details about the history of this tradition dating back to 1900.

Picture it…New York City (or any other large northeastern city) in 1899…Christmas is approaching and it’s time to choose sides for the Annual Christmas “Side-Hunt”. You know, the time when you choose your friends (or sides) you want to go bird hunting with? Remember, the whole idea is to go out and hunt birds indiscriminately and return to your starting site at the end of the day with the most pile of feathers and we’ll see who wins.

What! Yes this is how many enjoyed the Victorian-era Christmas Side-Hunt of the late 1800’s. You guessed it, at the turn of the 20th century the word “conservation” was not quite the often used and protective word of flora and fauna that it is today. In fact it was brand new and it took a while to catch on.

Well thankfully in 1900 some not-so-hunting-oriented folks got together and said, “Let’s try this count WITHOUT killing the few bird that are left!” So, headed up by the fledgling Audubon Society’s ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, a group of 27 birdwatchers from twenty-five big and small cities around the eastern US coordinated efforts and conducted a count of all the birds they saw on Christmas Day. And so, from the mouth of Chapman, was born the tradition of a Christmas Bird Census. Counting instead of hunting.

As of winter 2008-2009, the 109th Christmas Bird Count(CBC)was conducted at over 2,100 sites across the US, Canada, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands. Oh right, they just included Antarctica as the newest continent to join. Five species seen there!

Amazingly 50,475 dedicated birders and 9,338 bird feeder-watchers participated and we all counted a total of around 66 million(yup, that’s with an M) birds. There are over 50 CBC’s with 100 or more participants counting. Whew, that’s a lot of eyes!

How did New York do? With over 65 individual counts, we tallied a whopping 1.4 million birds. A bit closer to home, the Adirondacks usually shine during the counts because we often pull in the largest numbers of black-capped chickadees, gray jays, and if they’re in season, several species of finch, can all reach the highest numbers for the state.

How does it work? There is always a CBC coordinator and on one day between Dec 14 and Jan 5, he/she will gather up counters and assign them a territory, or some section of the designated 15 mile diameter circle of that particular count. You as counter will then choose your start time, the earlier the better, and then drive around(or walk, or kayak!) your area and count every bird you see.

After a full days count, there is usually a compilation time (National Audubon Society records the entire count world-wide) where counters get together, oftentimes a dinner, and tallies of all species and total numbers of birds are made. I like this part the best because if you’re lucky there is a potluck dinner offered at someones home-with a fireplace!

Our local CBC’s are Saranac Lake-2 Jan., Elizabethtown-20 Dec., Plattsburgh-20 Dec., Massena-Cornwall, Ont-27 Dec. Check out Northern New York Audubon Society for more details.

So one of these winter days you may encounter a group of goretex-bundled-tuque-wearing-binocular-laden-teeth-chattering-birders and you can be assured that each one of us is diligently and honestly counting all the chickadees, goldfinches, and woodpeckers in the deepest woodlands and snowiest fields of our Adirondack Park.

Photo of Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gull, and smaller Bonaparte’s Gulls

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.


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