Thursday, January 10, 2008

Weather doesn’t stop Christmas Bird Count at Clinton Lake

Weather doesn’t stop Christmas Bird Count at Clinton Lake

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Seven hours into 2008, I was standing by the side of an isolated road near Clinton Lake with three other guys, two of whom were whistling like screech owls. The air temperature hovered around 18 degrees and a 20 mile-an-hour wind whistled through the trees. This wasn’t the tail end of a wild New Year’s Eve party, but rather the beginning of a day of counting birds. My companions and I were participating in the 108th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The count at Clinton Lake is one of about 60 counts that take place in Illinois during the official Christmas Bird Count period, which runs from December 14 to January 5. These are part of a national effort that dates back to 1900, when a Christmas bird count 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 number of birds in a day. Currently some 50,000 people participate in Christmas Bird Counts each year, and collectively they observe more than 600 species of birds.

In conducting a Christmas Bird Count, volunteers follow specific routes through a designated 15-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 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.

Unfortunately for this year’s count at Clinton Lake, the horrendous weather that marked the start of the day persisted, with the addition of periods of heavy snow, which tended to whip through the air horizontally more than it fell. [Left: Steam rises from Clinton Lake in the background as Christmas Bird Count participants pursue another sighting. Photo by Dave Lambeth.] The meteorologist in our party would not permit use of the term “blizzard” in any form, however, pointing out that technically a blizzard is defined by 3 hours of sustained winds of 35 miles an hour or more.

Even so, the 11 people who participated on the Clinton Lake count observed 8,340 individual birds, including members of 73 different species. Among these were large numbers of ducks and geese, which we struggled to see through the clouds of steam that rose from the lake.

For me the highlight of the day was seeing a northern saw-whet owl, which was roosting in a dense stand of cedar.[Right: This well-camouflaged northern saw-whet owl was one of the more notable birds observed on the Christmas Bird Count conducted at Clinton Lake on New Year's Day. Photo by Greg Lambeth.] On my own I would never have found this bird, which is only the size of a tall coffee mug, and so well-camouflaged that it can escape notice even at very close range. Fortunately, the leader of our group, Greg Lambeth, one of our area’s most energetic and expert birders, knew right where to look for it, having found it already as he scouted the area the week before.

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. Until the, you’ve got 11 months to brush up on your bird identification skills."Steam rises from Clinton Lake in the background as Christmas Bird Count participants pursue another sighting."