Christmastime is for the birds — and birders

When I saw this article online, I just had to copy it here for you.  I thought you would enjoy it.  I learned why the traditional Christmas Bird Count was started and that it has been taking place for well over a century.  The below is copied from the Chicago Tribune online article dated December 26, 2011.

Audubon Society volunteers take count each holiday season

By William Mullen, Tribune Reporter

December 26, 2011

After doggedly tramping through snow-dusted trails of Naperville’s McDowell Woods Forest Preserve for an hour and a half, dutifully taking note of common birds like the Canada goose, mourning dove and some sparrows, Jeff Chapman and Jenny Vogt were brought to a stop by a small finch perched in a patch of brush.

“Common redpoll,” said Chapman, 37, in a hushed voice. “Wow,” said Vogt, 53, a fine arts painter from Streamwood.

Devoted amateur birders, they were clearly excited by the sight of a species rarely found this far south. They were doing it in the service of the oldest and one of the most important citizen science projects in the world, the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, now in its 112th year.

The count started in 1900 as a small Christmas Day affair involving just 27 birders in widely scattered parts of the U.S. It has grown to include more than 50,000 bird lovers in North, South and Central America who canvass more than 2,000 permanent count areas, recording the bird species and populations. A single day of counting is scheduled each year for each area, sometime between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.

A sort of annual hemispheric bird census, it has become an invaluable tool to ornithological, biological and environmental scientists that simply would not exist without the work of willing volunteers like Chapman and Vogt.

Each count area is a circle 15 miles across, circumscribed by the Audubon Society over carefully chosen city, suburban and rural areas. After many decades of record keeping, it has generated remarkably rich data on long-term bird population trends.

“The Christmas count has been done for such a long time that it is absolutely invaluable for looking at long-term trends of how populations of birds have changed locally and regionally,” said John Bates, associate curator of birds at the Field Museum.

The data can raise alarms on issues including environmental deterioration, habitat loss and climate change. It has, for instance, documented that with decades of warming winters, many bird species stay farther north during the winter. Out of 305 species recorded in the count over the last 40 years, 177 of them have “significantly” shifted their winter range to the north.

That trend made the appearance of the common redpoll — a species that prefers winters much colder than Chicago’s — all the more surprising.

“This is huge,” said Chapman moments after he spotted the bird.

Chapman, a project manager at a Hillside engineering consulting company, is a count circle compiler — a highly skilled birder who serves as leader of his circle.

There are 11 count circles in the Chicago area. Chapman’s is called the Fermi Lab Circle because its center point is on the grounds of the national laboratory. Sponsored by the DuPage Birding Club and the Kane County Audubon Society, it enlisted 129 people for its count this year, more than any other Illinois circle.

The participants in the count are all volunteers.  Novices are paired with more experienced birders to show them the ropes and double-check their observations.

Each circle is subdivided into areas covered by an assigned team of birders.  On count day, the most stalwart birders start at 4:30 a.m., long before dawn, to count nocturnal owls.

“Once it gets close to dawn, all the other birds start to wake up and get about their business,” said Geoffrey Williamson, a professor of electrical engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology and one of the region’s most respected birders.  He serves as the compiler of the Lisle-Morton Arboretum count circle.

“The first few hours of (daylight are) generally the most productive, when the birds are most active,” said Williamson. “You try to check all your hot spots in the morning. In the afternoon you look for species you missed during the morning and visit areas that have bird feeders.”

Volunteers cover a full spectrum of ages, although on average they’re middle-aged and older.  Williamson said he started birding when he was 8 years old, and Chapman got drawn into it in his early 20s trying to please a birding girlfriend who became his wife.

Requiring hours of walking, often over rough terrain, a count day is a surprisingly exhausting enterprise. Counters usually welcome sundown, when the entire count circle usually gathers for a countdown dinner.  After eating, teams ceremoniously turn in tallies.

“We tend to get to know each other over the years, so there is a lot of good-natured razzing at the dinner,” said Jenny Vogt as she sat at a table last Saturday night in the party room of a St. Charles restaurant, waiting for the Fermi Circle countdown dinner to begin.

“Birders are competitive by nature,” Vogt said. “Each team comes in hoping theirs found the rarest birds of the day.”

To record the tallies, Chapman hooked his laptop computer with a custom-made bird count spreadsheet into a large video screen visible to all dinner attendees. He began to call out names of species, and each team would report how many birds of that species it counted, if any, their numbers leaping to the large screen.

“I always start with the most commonly spotted species, beginning with Canada goose, and work down to the most seldom-seen species, when the reporting becomes most fun,” he said. “Every team hopes they have the biggest surprise of the day.”

There was lots of cheering with reports of rarely seen species — snipe, shrike, cowbirds, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, eastern towhee, redhead duck, greater scaup, black-crowned night heron, double-crested cormorant. The biggest surprise turned out to be the common redpoll Chapman and Vogt spotted.

The biggest cheer, however, came at the final tally, when Chapman announced the circle had broken its single-year record of number of species recorded, 90, overtaking the previous record of 87.

Historically, the count takes place at Christmastime for a social, not a scientific, reason. It was created as an attempt to stop a popular 19th-century Christmas Day tradition called “side hunts” in which hunters would form teams to see who could shoot the most birds and small game in an afternoon.

With a growing awareness that the American frontier was closed and wild game was a finite commodity, the newly organized Audubon Society in 1900 suggested a Christmas Bird Count as a substitute for the hunt. Only 27 counters responded in the first count.

Only one of the counters was in Illinois, somebody in Glen Ellyn who tallied 17 crows, eight prairie hens, two downy woodpeckers, one white-breasted nuthatch, 19 chickadees, seven blue jays and one tree sparrow.

The count gradually became more popular in subsequent years as the side hunts disappeared.

The Christmas count has in recent decades become the model for increasingly popular citizen science projects.  Scientists now enlist interested amateurs to help monitor all sorts of phenomena, such as identifying whale songs, hunting comets, measuring the weathering of gravestones or studying microscopic organisms living on our bodies and in our homes.

Scientists acknowledge that the results of the bird counts are by no means an inclusive count of all birds.  But because of the numbers of trained amateurs involved, they are a very good indication of bird populations.

“If I say a certain species has become more common or rarer in this region in recent years, it isn’t just one guy saying what he thinks he is seeing,” said John Bates of the Field Museum. “It is based on the Christmas count, which happens every year so that you have the ability to look at a very solid historical data set of what many eyes are seeing locally and regionally year after year.”

Copyright © 2011, Chicago Tribune

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2 Responses to Christmastime is for the birds — and birders

  1. Anonymous says:

    wonderfully fancinating

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