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Never count a bird down and out

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by MATTHEW NASH Sequim Gazette

Christmas time in Sequim means bright decorative lights downtown, holiday bazaars every weekend and bird counting.

Since 1975 the Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society has led the Sequim-Dungeness Christmas Bird Count to help track bird migrations and populations.

Each year, locals look for birds from McDonald Creek to Diamond Point, from Dungeness Spit to the edge of Olympic National Forest.

“We’re in a great spot for this count,” said Bob Boekelheide, director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center.

“In 2008, we had 91 counters and 43 feeder watchers.”

Sequim’s counts have set several records for Washington.

They’ve led the number of species seen in 10 of the past 12 years and hold the all-time record of 150 species spotted in 2007.
 
Flying to new information
Boekelheide said at the turn of the 20th century, a group in New York changed the Christmas tradition from bird hunting to counting. Families traditionally went out on Christmas to hunt birds, but watchers wanted to change the pastime.

This year celebrates the 110th anniversary for the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count that runs Dec. 14-Jan 5.

In Sequim, the count has happened every year since 1975, except for 1990 when an ice storm left counters sipping cocoas inside and birds flapping in the frost.

Over time, the count has become much more formal, Boekelheide said.

Several agencies have taken control of the count to gather several forms of data.

“It shows how many species have changed over time in North America,” Boekelheide said.

“When this count started, starlings had just been introduced in North America and the count showed how they moved across the nation.”

Evidence for climate change could be evidenced through bird migration, he said. “There’s really good documentation through bird migrations that they’ve moved north over the last 50 years,” Boekelheide said.

“It’s the sort of data that the typical researcher is not going to get on their own.”

Dozens of groups
Bird counting happens in a few different ways.

The most common has small groups with one or two seasoned counters going to different areas documenting bird species. On average, 30-35 groups go out each year.

“If they see something really unusual, we want a written description and hope for a photograph,” Boekelheide said.

“If possible, I go out there in the next day and try and spot the bird.” 

Counters can watch from feeders in their backyard, too.

Boekelheide recommends people walking up and down their streets or properties document birds as well. When the count is over on Dec. 14 in Sequim, the species total will be tallied.

Join the watch party
Bird counting requires some expertise, so for those new to birding Boekelheide recommends first taking some classes and/or going on field trips in the upcoming year at the River Center.

“I don’t want to discourage people, but when we start this count we don’t really have an opportunity to teach them,” he said.

People knowledgeable about birds are encouraged to participate. They can contact Boekelheide and he’ll set them up with a small group or advise them on how to watch from their backyards.
Recommended tools are binoculars, a field guide, notepad and a camera.

If uncertain of a species, experts at the River Center can help.

“No. 1, take a photograph if unsure or make a really good written description,” he said.

“We need to know parts of the bird you might not think are important, like shapes, sizes, colors, (etc).”
 
Be on the lookout
Some of the most commonly reported birds in Sequim-area are American wigeons and mallards found at Dungeness Spit and Carrie Blake Park.

Rare birds find their ways here often, such as the cattle egret, an African species that moved west to South America and then began moving north.

Several other rarities/oddities found here include the yellow-headed blackbird, yellow-billed loon and Anna’s hummingbird that for reasons unknown to Boekelheide have increased annually since 2006.

The Sequim-Dungeness Christmas Bird Count runs Dec. 12-14. At 4:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 14, the species numbers will be totaled at a celebration chili feed that costs $5.

For more information, see www.olympicpeninsulaaudubon.org or call Boekelheide at 681-4076.   

Reach Matthew Nash at mnash@sequimgazette.com.

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