The Christmas Bird Count: A Pleasant Start to the New Year

By David Spector Gazette Contributing Writer

There are many ways to start a year. On January 1 of this year I awoke at 2 a.m. and headed out to find birds. My first bird of 2011 was a barred owl that I heard respond to a playback of its species’ call. At my next stop a coyote yipped but no owl revealed itself. Farther down the road I didn’t need to stop to listen—a barred owl hunting from a road-side tree was easily visible in my headlight beams and the first bird I actually saw this year. Still well before sunrise, the next bird for the year was an American robin resting in the middle of a little-travelled road; birds startled from their normal resting sites sometimes settle onto open ground rather than landing on a branch in the dark. The deep, resonant duet between a male and a female great horned owl provided my last pre-dawn species.

At first hint of daylight I positioned myself where I could look up to the spectacle I expected to pass overhead. About 20 minutes before sunrise I saw the first of about 1,200 American robins flying from their roost in a nearby thicket to their fruit-filled winter feeding grounds in apple orchards a couple of miles away. As I watched the robins, I was treated to the duet of another pair of great horned owls. The robin flight finished, I heard the deep “bonk” of a raven and saw a crow-sized pileated woodpecker in flight.

With the new year’s sun over the horizon, at 7:30 a.m. I met a group of friends who spent the daylight hours birdwatching with me. The day offered many birds, including big, spectacular ones, like bald eagles, and tiny, spectacular ones, like a winter wren and a golden-crowned kinglet—at nine and six grams, respectively, these latter two are among the smallest birds to regularly survive New England winters.

This pleasant start to the new year with friends and birds was also a time for data collection. We kept track of the number of birds of each species heard or seen that day as part of an annual Christmas Bird Count, one of dozens across New England and over 2,000 across the Americas. These counts, a “citizen science” effort, take place each year in a three-week period from mid-December to early January. On each count, volunteers (anywhere from a handful to over 100 per count) keep track of the numbers of birds seen or heard in a 15-mile-diameter circle that stays the same from year to year. After many counts, participants gather in the evening to tally numbers and share the day’s experiences, from frustrating (getting stuck in snow, falling through ice) to fabulous (watching a bobcat, finding a rare bird).

Christmas Bird Counts have gathered data since 1900 when Frank Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History proposed a new tradition to transform the bird hunts that for centuries had marked winter solstice, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. Today’s counts continue the ancient fascination with the winter wren, which survives winter along forest streams in New England. In the British Isles, “wrenning” was the Christmastime hunt to capture or kill a wren, part of a ritual that goes well back into antiquity. The counts, like the earlier hunts, depend on knowledge of birds and their habitats, careful observation and perseverance in winter weather. Both activities generate rich camaraderie and memories, but the counts generate data rather than dead or caged birds. These data have helped to map changing winter ranges and abundances of birds across North America for over a century.

Each count is different. The birds and weather cooperate more some years than others, but I always enjoy the opportunity to be outdoors, watch birds, experience the community of naturalists, and contribute a few data points to a useful project. This season I will be out again on two of these counts, participating in what for me has become one of the most meaningful traditions of the annual cycle.

David Spector is a former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and teaches biology at Central Connecticut State University. Find a Christmas Bird Count near you and find out how to participate.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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