Thursday, January 05, 2006

Audubon Christmas Bird Count in East Central Illinois

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It was just after 6:00 a.m. on December 17th as I walked into the U of I forestry plantation off of South Race Street in Urbana, and sunrise was still an hour away. But the soft hooting of a great horned owl gave me my first bird for the 2005 Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The two more expert birders I was on my way to meet had already heard my owl, and when I found them they were busy calling and listening for others. Within a short time we had added both a screech owl and a barred owl to our list, which also came to include a long eared owl that flew in to roost a little later that morning. It was an excellent start to a great day of birding.

The Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900, when it was conceived of as an alternative to the tradition of the holiday “side hunt,” in which teams competed to see who could shoot the greatest quantity of birds in a day. Twenty-seven people participated in that first count, and they tallied ninety species of birds.

In contrast, recent years have seen upwards of fifty thousand people participating, species counts of more than six hundred, and total numbers of birds around seventy-five million.

In conducting the count, volunteers follow specific routes through a designated fifteen-mile diameter circle, making note of every bird they see or hear for as much of the day as possible. The idea is to record not only how many species are observed, but also roughly how many individuals of each species are present on the count route that day.

Given the variability in the way individual counts are conducted, the information gathered from the Christmas Bird Count is most useful for assessing general trends in populations of wintering birds over time, and short term fluctuations in data are expected.

Altogether thirty-nine people participated in the Champaign County count that I was on, some in the field, and others recording the birds they saw at their backyard feeders. Among us we counted more than eleven thousand birds, with at least one individual from sixty-eight different species.

For me, highlights of the day included seeing a northern goshawk chase pheasants in the restored prairie at Meadowbrook Park, and catching sight of a peregrine falcon as it rode the afternoon wind. But the count is also about keeping tabs on the smaller birds that come down from northern states and Canada to enjoy the central Illinois winter with us: dark-eyed juncos, American trees sparrows, purple finches, and the like.

There are a number of other Christmas Bird Count circles in our area in addition to the one in Champaign County. Count circles in Vermilion County take in Lake Vermilion and the natural areas along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Another circle takes in Clinton Lake in De Witt County. These counts tend to yield larger numbers of species because of the waterfowl habitat and the natural areas they encompass.

I should emphasize that new volunteers for the Christmas Bird Count are always welcome, and that they need not be expert birders. If the idea of participating in a Christmas Bird Count next year appeals to you, you can make contact with local coordinators through the Champaign County Audubon Society, or the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count web pages.

Until then, you’ve got eleven good months to brush up on your bird identification skills.