Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Christmas Bird Count

In the 19th century, there was a popular Christmas sport called the "side hunt" where a party would split into two groups and go off hunting. Whichever group came back with the most game, usually birds, was considered the winner. The tradition worried ornithologist Dr. Frank Chapman and in 1900 he started what he hoped would become an annual tradition, the Christmas Bird Count. Over 100 years later, the count is still conducted. Now it serves as a method for understanding winter bird populations.

The Audubon Society is in charge of the CBC. They have designated count "circles," areas with various habitat requirements that are significant enough to represent winter bird populations. Within that circle, birdwatchers count individual birds, not just species. After a full day of birding in Missouri, bird counts often reflect hundreds of cardinals, flickers and juncos with species counts ranging from 60 to 120. The local state park is lucky to be the nucleus of a bird count circle. Luckier still is that since 1965, when the circle designation was assigned, bird population data for the park has been collected and stored online. You can see how many pintail were there in 1965, how many brown creepers in 1980, and so on. Audubon uses the CBC information to track changes in North American bird populations. In recent years, for example, hooded merganser populations in New England have soared while grosbeaks have declined.

Bird counters are generally glad to see and count any birds, but the more uncommon species are the real gems. Everyone looks for the migrant who never left or the aberrant species who hasn't been recorded from the area. If the bird is really uncommon, you have to document the occurrence. My common yellowthroat last December had to be documented because it was so uncommon. Neal had the only blue gray gnatcatcher in the state at Mingo NWR. That one, too, had to be documented.

We had our bird count on Friday, a 65 degree day with no wind and clear skies. The park's count circle is a large area that includes Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area and countless farms and abandoned barns (great for barn owls. We counted 3.). I set out around 6 am to catch a few owls (2 barred, 1 great horned) and didn't end the day until 6 pm, just as 2 short-eared owls flapped across a field. Our group of 8 was divided into four teams of retired ornithology professors from St. Louis, a few enthusiasts who have attended the count since 1965 and my teammates, a wetlands biologist from central Missouri and a novice who gladly served as the recorder. Neal, the biologist, is an outstanding birder. He didn't even bring a field guide (I had 2.). We were the youngest birders in the whole group, but Neal's expertise blew me away. Just as we set out, we heard a single chip note that he declared as a palm warbler, a very rare winter visitor. Dubious, I held us up waiting for that flash of chestnut streaking on the back. He was right. And I was duly impressed. This happened repeatedly with lapland longspurs, red shouldered hawks, flocks of Ross' geese. By noon, I realized not to question Neal.

We each had a short list of birds we really wanted to see. I wanted LeConte's sparrows and Bewick's wrens, Neal wanted a phoebe, and Jeremy, the checklist keeper who never used his binoculars, wanted a loggerhead shrike. All the swamp, song, Lincoln's and fox sparrows in the world weren't as exciting as the prospect of a LeConte's. We saw the shrike at the end of the day and never got a phoebe or the LeConte's.

The warm weather, while great for us, kept a lot of normally common winter birds at bay. We picked up only a handful of white throated sparrows, 2 robins, and no one saw a snipe or a pipit. There was only one killdeer recorded for the whole circle. Last year's 35,000 snow geese dwindled to a mere 5,000 this year. When Audubon publishes their report in October, they'll likely mention the warm weather and explain the effects on wintering populations.

It's great fun to go birding with serious bird watchers like Neal. He spends weekends in the Phillipines looking for a single hummingbird. The quest for "life list birds" is unrelenting. I'm not experienced enough to be considered a real birder, but I enjoy the competition of finding different species. I pulled together my paltry life list over the summer and despite a few great south American birds and the Gulf Coast cadre, my list is really small. I check out local birds wherever I go, but I've never flown to Thailand for a hawk. Neal can see a pine warbler from 2 miles away and I have to wait for it to land right in front of me.

I'm heading to the Oregon Coast this week. During last year's Coos Bay CBC, counters found high numbers of snowy owls and Townsend's warblers. I'm hoping to see some auklets and murres, maybe even a curlew sandpiper. I'm going to chip away at my life list this year and become a better birder. That way, Neal won't have to work so hard next year.

1 comment:

Ted M. said...

LeConte's sparrow - do you know which LeConte it was named for? The most prominent (to my mind) was John Lawrence LeConte, a physician considered by many to be the father of American Coleopterology. I think he also had a cousin named John LeConte, also a physician and first president of UC Berkeley. Their fathers (brothers) were also noted naturalists, so it could've been any of them.

Sorry for the flush of comments on old posts - I'm enjoying the history lessons!