Wednesday, January 13, 2016

My First Christmas Bird Count

Although I've enjoyed watching birds since I was a young child, I had never participated in the annual Christmas Bird Count.  Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, the Christmas Bird Count began in 1900 and is the oldest continuing citizen-science project in North America.  This year in a new home and community, I decided that the time was right to get out and learn about the bird species in the area and meet others who are interested in nature and birds.  So here are some observations after doing my first Christmas Bird Count.

Pileated woodpecker at Willeth Farm
I wanted to start out with a decent bird photo so here is one of a pileated woodpecker on a snag at my home at Willeth Farm.  In the interest of full disclosure, this bird was not included in the count because I did not take this photo on the day of the Christmas Bird Count in my area.  It was taken a few days later.  The bird count is conducted throughout the US and Canada every year during the two week period between December 14th and January 5th.

The bird counts are done in a defined 15 mile diameter "circle".  Volunteers in each circle decide on one selected date during the Christmas Bird Count time frame between December 14th and January 5th to do their count.

Over the years, new circles have been created when enough people in an area commit to volunteering for the count.  Each group must have a volunteer compiler who usually leads the group and at least 10 additional volunteers to cover the circle.  To make the count scientifically valid, once a circle has been created the count area has the same boundaries every year.  The people doing the count may change over the years, but each year the volunteers travel along the same assigned routes to try to cover as much of their circle as possible,  Some people living within a circle may sign up in advance to count the birds in their neighborhood, yard or at their bird feeders.

The day of the count I woke up at 4 am because I was so excited and looking forward to this adventure.  Our group was to meet at a local restaurant at 6:30 am to divide into teams to cover our area and then set out to look for birds by sunrise.  I had packed my backpack the night before with my wallet, gloves, hand-warmers, extra socks, camera, binoculars and my old trusty bird ID field guide.

The Sibley Guide to Birds
After arriving at our meeting place, introductions were made and people who were newbies like me were assigned to carpool in a vehicle with experienced participants.  Our 15 mile circle was divided into three areas with one vehicle of counters assigned to each area.   We arrived at the boundary of our area at about 7:30 am and spotted some ravens flying shortly thereafter.  After driving along our assigned route for a few more minutes, we spotted a yard with numerous birds attracted to several feeders.

A backyard bird feeder at the Christmas Bird Count
 It was here that I learned how challenging it can be to count the number of birds in a flock that are in constant motion.  We saw numerous black-capped chickadees, but to avoid counting the same bird twice, the rules for the count are that we only record the maximum number of birds of a specific species at each location that we could see at the same time.  As I recall at this location we came up with seven, but there were probably actually several more flitting back and forth from the trees.

Farm and Pasture
Our circle boundaries were set up to include a variety of habitats including farmland and pastures.  My monochromatic photos show how winter weather and light conditions can make spotting and identifying birds difficult.

Wild turkey in Pend Oreille County, WA

 We stopped at several cattle ranches where we counted large numbers of ravens and wild turkeys.

A Marsh in Pend Oreille County
We scanned several marshy areas and with patience were often rewarded by the sight of a song sparrow.   We also we also saw two Northern Shrikes.

Northern Shrike

Included in our circle were several forested areas.

Dead snag with bird nesting holes
Unfortunately no birds were seen at this dead snag, but the holes suggest it has been used as a nesting site in the spring and summer.   Our travels took us past several small streams.   We spotted a common goldeneye swimming along in one.

Common Goldeneye

Then we looked downstream and saw a dipper to add to our count.

American Dipper

Our area also included some sections of the Pend Oreille River where numerous waterfowl were present, although the falling snow and cloudy day made identifying all of the species difficult.

The Pend Oreille River in Winter

We also spotted a bald eagle perched at the top of a tree across the river.

Bald Eagle
The photo is obviously of poor quality, but is another illustration of the challenge of spotting and counting even large, easily identified birds in less than ideal weather conditions.  Another bird of prey seen was this Red-tail Hawk who was sitting in a tree until I tried to take a photo.

Red tail hawk in flight

Perhaps not surprisingly, we saw the largest number of different species and were able to see the birds close-up to easily make accurate identifications and counts in backyards with bird feeders.  After our compiler tabulated all of the counts from the groups traveling along the established routes and those who signed up to stay home and tally birds in their own yards,  there were 53 different species of birds identified in our area for the 2015-2016 Christmas Bird Count.

Despite the cold and challenging conditions I enjoyed meeting some fun, friendly local birders and had a really great time.  I saw several species I had never seen before including Northern Shrikes, Pine Grosbeaks, and Common Redpolls.  I definitely plan on participating again next year. If you are interested in learning more about the Christmas Bird Count or participating next year, go to the Audubon Society website.

I've also been inspired to participate in another upcoming annual citizen science project, the Great Backyard Bird Count which is held each year in February and is co-sponsored by the Audubon Society and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Please feel free to comment about your experiences with birding or citizen science projects.

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  1. Wow! What a fun way to get out and see all the local wildlife and birds! I've never done that, and it must have been really awesome to see all those wonderful birds. We have eagles and hawks that fly over here quite often, and certainly lots of wild turkeys! Sadly, we have quite a few of the pileated woodpeckers around here, which means that we have a lot of bugs eating our trees. They are a beautiful bird to watch though! We also have lots of the chickadees right now. I really enjoyed your photo tour, and am convinced that we must live very close to each other, as I recognized several landmarks in your photos. That is quite exciting! Thank you for your visit to my space, and I look forward to getting to know you better :)

  2. Thank you so much for visiting and leaving your comment! Yes, it was a fun day and since I am new to the area, it was a great way to meet some kindred spirits. I always enjoy being able to make connection with others who live in this sparsely populated part of the country. We've got lots of pileated and other woodpecker species on our 48 acres of forest. Although I'm concerned about the insect infestations in the trees, I'm thankful to have big old trees that provide homes for the woodpeckers and other insect eaters so they are here to help keep things in balance and the numbers of insects under control.