A feathery Christmas: Birders head outdoors for annual bird count
There’s plenty of tradition and symbolism that goes along with the holiday season, but for birders no tradition is more part of the holiday than the annual Christmas Bird Count.
The count is just what it sounds like: Every year around Christmastime, birding groups around the country get together for a full day outside to count as many bird species as possible in a circle that’s 15 miles wide. Local groups can set their own date, but they have to fall within about 10 days of Christmas Day. This year, bird counts are happening between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.
“Birding is kind of like a sport. It’s a hobby to many people,” said Brock Hutchins, who is organizing the count for the Highlands Plateau Audubon Society. “It increases your own knowledge and gives you a chance to see birds in a wild habitat and with other birders.”
A typical bird count entails an early morning meet-up where birders divide into groups and are assigned a section of the circle to cover. Then, the groups spend all day — rain, snow, ice or shine — tallying as many species as possible. The results are then compiled and sent on to the Audubon Society, whose database of bird counts goes all the way back to 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman started the first one.
The results of that body of information add up to a lot more than just a hobbyist tally. The information, compiled over more than a hundred years and now taken by more than 2,300 circles nationwide, adds up to an ornithological history.
“It gives a way for citizens to contribute to the scientific database of where birds are and why they are in certain areas,” Hutchins said. “Scientists can use that information for their studies concerning where birds are going, if they’re increasing their population in certain areas, decreasing population.”
The key issue, really, is conservation, Hutchins said. Habitat destruction is a real threat for all manner of wildlife, but to help out the situation you have to know how the habitat is used.
“To conserve habitat you need to know where the birds are and when they’re there,” he explained.
Sometimes, what’s there is a surprise.
Hutchins recalls one year finding a sandhill crane in the Highlands circle, a large bird whose north to south migration encompasses the American West and Midwest but steers clear of North Carolina. Another year, birders found some ringbill gulls, a seabird that’s not usually seen that far inland, and another time an American woodcock was spotted.
Don Hendershot of the Carolina Field Birders in Haywood County says the count averages about 73 species and has turned up such surprises as a yellow-headed blackbird and cackling goose.
Birders in the Cades Cove area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park have also found some surprises, including short-eared owls overwintering in the park and a flock of more than 120 red crossbills on the Foothills Parkway.
There are a lot of knowledgeable people out on the bird counts, birders who have honed their avian identification abilities over the span of decades. But the bird counts are also an opportunity for beginning birders to get out in the field with experienced ones. They can help spot birds for others to identify, record finds on paper and just generally enjoy being outdoors and soaking up some knowledge.
“We have enough people that have enough skill to help to identify the birds, so if you’re a beginner you can contribute,” Hutchins said.
And the overall contribution of the count itself? Hopefully, conservation for more feathered species.
There are plenty of opportunities for beginning and advanced birders alike to help out with the bird count. Check out the list below to find a count near you and let the leader know you’re coming.
• The Highlands Audubon Society will start its count at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 18 in Highlands. To participate, contact Brock Hutchins at 404.295.0663.
• The Franklin Bird Club will start its count at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 3, in Franklin. The day will begin early with a break for lunch and end around 4 p.m. with a group gathering afterward to share findings. Sign up by Jan. 1 at 828.524.4707.
Maps and contact information for all bird count circles nationwide, as well as a database of information from past Christmas Bird Counts, are available online at birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.