Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Dave Gibson: Christmas Bird Counting

Phyllis Burchett - Audubon Photo AwardsPreparing for the annual Christmas Bird Count is, like the entire holiday season, on the hectic side. The binoculars and spotting scopes have been set aside and need to be found. Packing a good lunch a few hours in advance is a good idea, but rarely accomplished.

My highest hurdle is getting up and out early in the morning to meet my team of counters, whose punctuality and other habits, after nearly thirty years of counting in the dead of winter, are rather well known.

Christmas bird counts may not be too dissimilar to white-tailed deer hunts. There is the same excitement. After all, this is a bird hunt. The senses are attuned to the slightest sound or movement. “Bird every bird” is the counter’s motto. In other words, don’t assume that bird flying by is just another Robin. Actually, in some years Robins are very hard to find.

The origin of the Christmas Bird Count dates back 115 years. In 1900, Frank M. Chapman, curator of birds and mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, and editor of Bird-Lore, the forerunner of Audubon magazine, encouraged Americans to go outside and observe winter birds without the intent to shoot them.

A wealthy man pushed into the family’s banking business, Chapman instead volunteered at the American Museum in the 1880s and rose to become one of its most famous curators and bird advocates. This was the era of the plume hunters, when egrets and herons were killed on their rookeries for feather hats, and during the wholesale slaughter of the Passenger Pigeon. As a natural historian-conservationist, Chapman was much admired and emulated by Theodore Roosevelt.

Today, Christmas Bird Counts are among the longest-running citizen science projects in the world. Counts in North America (and elsewhere in the world) involve close to 75,000 volunteers counting birds in 2,400 locations. Each “location” is a circle 15 miles in diameter within which one or more teams of volunteers count every bird seen or heard.  Last year, approximately 2,400 species and 66 million birds of were observed during the two-week Christmas count period. The global sponsor of the Count is the National Audubon Society. Audubon chapters are heavily involved, but one does not have to be a member to initiate a count area.

The bird count data is tabulated and used in many research projects about birds, their numbers, distribution, and habitats. For instance, the accumulating data, in combination with breeding bird information, show that the ranges of well over 300 bird species have been altered due to climate change.

The biggest factor in my nearly 30 years of counting has been the weather the week before and on the day of the count, and the conditions on and off the lakes and rivers.  If their is no ice yet on lakes and rivers, prepare for a big day, especially for ducks. In a good year, Scaup, Hooded Merganser, Ring-necked Ducks, even occasional Canvasbacks and Northern Pintails may be seen. If the air is still and there is no rain, snow or fog, sharpen up your ears and eyeballs, it could be a big push to locate 50 species in our area, possibly 60! Then there are the days of high winds, rain, snow or a combination, with the lakes frozen over, and the birds are hunkered down. If those are the conditions, you may be hard-pressed to count 30 species.

What are the trends in my area, Saratoga County? Well, take Bald Eagle. For fifteen years, none were observed on the Christmas Count. That changed in 2000 when two were seen.  Now we expect to see Bald Eagle every year, and this year was no exception. It feels odd if we don’t see one or more. This year, my fellow counter Ron took a great photo of an adult flying right over us, while its mate was conspicuously perched down river.  Saratoga Lake was entirely ice free on December 14th, but even on an icy lake eagles are easily seen here hunting ducks near any open water. Red-bellied Woodpecker, which has greatly expanded its range northward, also, was unobserved  for years until the 1990s and now is regularly seen or heard in our area.  Perhaps the growing number of bird-feeders and the warming temperatures up the Hudson River valley has helped this northward move. This year we saw one, which contributed to the nearly 50 species our team observed.

On the other end of the spectrum, Evening Grosbeak was regularly seen or heard in flocks during the 1980s and early 90s. I do not recall seeing any since the 1995 Christmas count, nor have I seen a Northern Shrike in that many years. The apparent decline of these species in our area is of great interest, but the cuase is not at all clear. There are  cyclical, episodic events which contribute to the bird counts. Last year’s Snowy Owl mass movements south from their Canadian arctic breeding grounds is one spectacular example.

There is always a very satisfying “find” every year. This year was no exception. For me, it was my friend Ray’s keen eyes finding a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in a lone evergreen hanging over the lake. Ray also had the remarkable ability to spot two male Redhead Ducks among a sea of Canada Geese, Common Goldeneye, Mallards, Common Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks. How did he ever single the Redheads out in that crowd? They brightened our day considerably.  As for my “finds,” they included a lone Brown Creeper (seemingly, a bird that counters struggle to find near day’s end creeping up a tree trunk) and a tightly huddled flock of Coots, who may be particularly vulnerable to the Bald Eagles own hunt that day.

It was another great Christmas Count experience, thanks to the birds and their habitats, National Audubon Society, and my counter friends Ray, Ron and Tom, whose keen eyesight and friendship make birding on a cold winter’s day more than satisfying.

For more about the Count, go to

Photo courtesy Phyllis Burchett/Audubon Photo Awards.

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Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for over 30 years as executive director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks and currently as managing partner with Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is managing partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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