The holiday season is a grand time of year, not only for celebrations and family get-togethers but also because it’s time for Christmas Bird Counts.
Why do birdwatchers count birds during the cold, short days of late fall and winter?
One good reason is curiosity. The counts document where birds are and what habitats they use, helping to increase our knowledge about the natural world.
For example, CBCs show that several types of birds in the eastern half of North America now regularly spend the winter a few hundred miles farther north than they did 50 years ago, which shows that wild animals respond to changing habitats and climates.
The counts also document changes in populations, such as the striking decline in common loons and Western grebes in Washington over the past 30 years.
A second good reason is the thrill of the chase. It’s like the excitement of an Easter egg hunt for a child, only our goal is to locate birds. Finding unusual birds outside their normal range adds to the thrill.
A third reason is friendly competition. Bragging rights are important in the birding world, to have a large list or a rare bird not seen anywhere else. The most important thing, however, is to have a “clean count,” with well-documented records that leave no doubt that sightings are real.
A fourth reason, perhaps most important for many counters, is that it’s a lot of fun to get outside and see the birds.
The first CBC took place in 1900, initiated by Frank Chapman of the newly formed National Audubon Society. Only 25 CBCs took place in 1900, all in the eastern U.S. By 2009, a record 2,160 CBCs took place, from Alaska to South America.
On the North Olympic Peninsula, there are three different CBCs — Sequim-Dungeness, Port Townsend and Port Angeles. According to the rules, these counts must occur between Dec. 14-Jan. 5 each year.
The Sequim-Dungeness CBC, sponsored by Olympic Peninsula Audubon Society, first occurred in 1975. This year it takes place on Monday, Dec. 20.
The local Audubon Society also sponsors the Port Angeles CBC, which became an official count as recently as 2007. This year the Port Angeles count is on Sunday, Jan. 2.
The Port Townsend CBC, sponsored by Admiralty Audubon Society, began in 1977, covering the Quimper Peninsula, Indian and Marrowstone islands. This year the CBC is on Saturday,
Each count covers a 15-mile-diameter circle, which is split into assigned areas for different field parties. We try very hard not to duplicate areas, so birds get counted only once.
We also have “feeder watchers” — people who tally birds for a few hours in their backyards and neighborhoods during the day.
The North Olympic Peninsula has some of the highest bird diversity in Washington, as shown by the Sequim-Dungeness CBC, which holds the highest species count of any CBC in Washington, a record 150 species seen in 2007.
People ask, “How do you know someone isn’t making up birds on their list?”
First, unusual birds require a written description, or better yet, a photograph. If someone reports an unusual species, they can expect to be grilled by count leaders. We check unusual species and numbers very carefully.
In addition, even the best birders make mistakes or don’t see birds well enough to know for sure, so questionable sightings may not be included for the sake of a clean count.
Another question is, “How do you know birds aren’t counted more than once?”
Over-counting is certainly a possibility, particularly for big birds like bald eagles and large waterfowl. Several years ago, three field parties reported seven trumpeter swans flying over the Sequim circle, adding up to 21 swans. A check of group leaders showed that they all saw the swans at the same time, so only seven swans ended up on the official list.
CBCs provide huge amounts of data about birds in North America, all provided by “citizen scientists” dedicated to birdwatching.
For example, snowy owls typically “irrupt” from their more northerly nesting areas every three to seven years. This is shown very well by the Sequim CBC, which recorded snowy owls in 1977, 1980, 1984, 1991, 1996, 2000 and 2005. We’re looking forward to the next snowy owl invasion, perhaps in 2010.
If you’d like to participate in the Sequim-Dungeness count, contact Bob Boekelheide at the Dungeness River Audubon Center, 681-4076, or e-mail email@example.com. For the Port Angeles CBC, the compiler is Barb Blackie, at 477-8028. The Port Townsend CBC compiler is Dick Johnson, at 360-385-5418. Please call well before the count so arrangements can be made with group leaders.
Much more information about CBCs is available at http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count, including access to all the data collected during the past 110 years. Local information also is available at the OPAS website: www.olympicpeninsulaaudubon.org.