Thursday, January 13, 2005

105th Audubon Christmas Bird Count

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Just before dawn last December 17th, I met up with some of our area’s most expert and energetic birders at Clinton Lake, to take part in the world's longest-running citizen science effort, the Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

The Christmas Bird Count dates back to 1900, when ornithologist Frank Chapman conceived of it as an alternative to the earlier 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. 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.

According to the national Audubon society, the primary objective of the Christmas Bird Count is “to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations across the Western Hemisphere.” When results from the count are combined with other measures, such as the North American Breeding Bird Survey they can help us see how bird populations have changed over the past hundred years.

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 roughly how many individuals of each species are present on the count route that day.

The Clinton Lake count that I was on was started in 1987 by Myrna Deaton, who still coordinates it, and who termed this year’s count the “most boring” ever. The seventy-five species of birds we observed that day set a record low, and numbers of many species, especially waterfowl and sparrows, were down from previous years.

That said, we did see some interesting birds. During my hours with the count my team spotted greater white-fronted geese, pine siskins, a brown creeper, wild turkey, and a barred owl. The most notable sighting, which occurred ten minutes after I left, was a tree swallow, a first for the Clinton Lake count. This is a bird we would expect to see during the breeding season, but which was probably too far north for his own good in the third week of December.

There are a number of other Christmas Bird Count circles in our area in addition to the Clinton Lake count, including a Champaign County circle that encompasses most of Urbana, and a Middle Fork circle that includes Lake Vermillion and the state and county natural areas along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.

This year the Champaign County circle tallied fifty-seven species of birds, with the highlight being eighty-eight American pipits, a peregrine falcon, and two long-eared owls.

Nobody I spoke with regarding this year’s count was more enthusiastic than Steve Bailey, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, who heads up the Middle Fork Count. Despite taking place in the worst weather possible—last Wednesday’s all day rain that turned to ice—the Middle Fork count turned up fifty-eight species of birds, including five species of owls, a pair of bald eagles, and a trumpeter swan.

If the idea of joining one of these counts 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.