Tis the season to be counting.
The National Audubon Society’s century-old citizen-science prototype — the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) — began Dec. 14 and will run through Jan. 5, 2011. Area birders will join forces with counters across the state and nation and around the world gathering data that allows scientists to study long-term population trends of bird species.
The local Balsam CBC, which includes Waynesville and its surroundings, will be held New Year’s Day. According to count originator and compiler, Bob Olthoff, the Balsam CBC originated in 2003. Last year’s count had to be cancelled because of nasty weather, so this will be the eighth Balsam CBC.
All CBCs are set up the same way. A count circle 15 miles in diameter is established and birders attempt to identify and count every species of bird encountered on count day. Once a circle is established, the idea is to maintain (for scientific data consistency) that particular circle as long as possible.
The Los Angeles CBC, established in the 1930s, claims to be the longest running CBC in the country. Some birders are up in the pre-dawn blackness or count into the night to try and locate owls and other nocturnal species.
The center of the Balsam CBC circle is near Barber’s Orchard. It extends eastward to just across the Old Asheville Highway and the Mountain Research Station (Test Farm.) It extends westward to Balsam Mountain Preserve in Jackson County. And it runs from Cataloochee Ranch and Soco Gap in the north to Lake Logan in the south.
The Balsam circle — like most count circles — is further subdivided into sections, and different groups of birders are responsible for the different sections. The two most productive sections in the Balsam circle, according to Olthoff, are the Lake Logan section — which includes the Mountain Research Station — and the Lake Junaluska section.
Hits and misses
Birders are always looking for that rare find. While CBCs are confined to one winter’s day with common winter residents making up the bulk of species, rarities are often discovered.
“A yellow-headed blackbird has got to be the best bird we’ve had so far,” Olthoff said.
The yellow-headed blackbird was discovered during the 2006 count at the Mountain Research Station in a mixed flock of blackbirds, cowbirds and starlings. Thanks to a digital camera carried by Wayne Forsythe, the bird was photographed so there could be no question about the ID.
The yellow-headed blackbird generally nests from western and central Canada, east to the Great Lakes and south to northern Baja, Calif., and Arizona. It is a neotropical migrant and winters from the southwestern U.S. to Costa Rica. The bird is a bit of a wanderer and is found as a rare spring and fall migrant throughout the eastern U.S.
According to Olthoff, the last seven counts have produced five species of warblers. Yellow-rumped warblers overwinter in the area and have been on every count but the other four species are rare finds in the mountains in the winter. They include common yellowthroat, orange-crowned, pine and palm warblers.
But misses can sometimes be as intriguing as rarities. “In ’07, we didn’t have a single robin or cedar waxwing,” Olthoff said. He said that other counts in the area had similar results that year, “they either missed completely or had substantially reduced numbers.”
Olthoff said the average number of species recorded on the Balsam CBC is 73. “We’ve had 77 on two different counts and 63 on our first count, was the fewest,” he said.
Other mountain counts
Olthoff — who has participated in at least 100 CBCs, most in his native New Jersey — noted that 73 species was a good total for mountain CBCs in North Carolina. He attributed the number to diverse habitat. He said that having Lake Junaluska, Lake Logan and the Waynesville reservoir in the mix added waterfowl species that other mountain counts might not have. It’s not uncommon for the Balsam count to produce 10-12 species of waterfowl. A mixture of farmland, urban and suburban landscape and forests ensure that the count is representative of the types of habitat found in the area.
Other mountain CBCs aren’t as fortunate to have as many diverse habitats. Species’ numbers may decline from year to year, but the commitment and enthusiasm of the counters don’t. The Highlands Plateau Audubon Chapter had its CBC on Dec. 17. The Highlands count was also cancelled last year due to weather, and compiler Brock Hutchins said that while this year’s conditions were less than optimal, four brave souls bucked the elements to carry on the CBC tradition. Hutchins said that Cynthia Strain, Avery Doubleday, Mike Kaiser and he spent the morning surveying as much of the circle as they could.
“The back roads were still covered with ice and slush,” Hutchins said, but the group managed to record 37 species and 522 total birds.
Strain said that some of the roads in her section were “solid ice,” but said they were happy to record belted kingfisher, winter wren and brown thrasher.
Curtis Smalling is Audubon North Carolina’s Important Bird Area Coordinator and compiler for the Grandfather Mountain CBC.
“This is one of the highest average elevation count circles in the mountains, and we often see frozen ponds and lakes, as well as snow and wind,” he said. “Because of the high elevations and extreme weather we usually only average about 45 species, which is often the lowest species total in the state. But we take pride in the fact that we still get out there and see what is around.”
Why count birdies when it’s cold outside?
Olthoff said that the citizen-science aspect resonates with him.
“It’s important,” he said. “By keeping consistent data year after year it’s possible to get an idea about overall population trends.”
He believes that CBC data has helped document increases in eastern populations of hooded mergansers while noting decreases in American kestrels.
Olthoff also believes that because CBCs are so open and encourage everyone to participate that they are great ways to get people involved in the natural environment.
“The Balsam CBC is a great way to greet the New Year,” he said.
Olthoff believes the CBC offers a great way for people to become educated about and become involved in protecting the local environment.
Strain agreed and said that newcomers shouldn’t be intimidated.
“There’s always something you can do,” she said, “you can drive, you can record species, you can count – and the whole time you’re learning.”
Plus it’s a good time.
“The camaraderie and support are great,” Olthoff said.
The Balsam count ends with dinner at Bocelli's in Waynesville where counters tally their checklists and swap lies about the day’s events.