CHRISTMAS BIRD COUNT

It was the Saturday before Christmas, my alarm rang at 5:00 AM. This was a rare weekend off for me and I could actually sleep late like most normal folks do. But no, I had decided to join the 91st Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. It was dark, cold and raining when I got in my car to drive out to Limantour Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. But it could have been much worse, I could be counting birds in North Dakota or worse yet Pt Barrow, Alaska. That’s the northernmost point for the count. They only get one bird every year. They walk out to the dump (even at midday it is still dark up there) and listen for the sound of a raven. That’s the bird for the day, one common raven. Well at least they don’t lose count.

The very first Audubon Christmas bird count was held on December 25th, 1900 and 27 people took part. Back then there was a tradition of going out on Christmas Day and shooting a bunch of birds for dinner. Frank Chapman, the organizer of the count and Curator of Birds for the American Museum of Natural History, thought that people should be looking at, rather than killing birds. He was right and the count worked. Last year (1993) over 43,000 people in the United States and Canada participated. They traveled by foot, on snowshoes, skis, sleigh, car, horseback, bicycle, canoe, motorboat, marsh buggy, airplane, helicopter and even electric golf carts and counted 118,771,985 birds. Whew that’s alot birds.

All of North America (except Mexico) is divided into 1538 circles, each with a 15 mile diameter. During a two week period around Christmas, one day is chosen and on this day people attempt to count every single wild bird in their area. The Point Reyes Christmas count consistently records over 150 species every year. It is one of the most productive counting areas in the country.

The leader for our Limantour section was Jules Evens. Jules is one of the best birders in the area. Which is quite a compliment because West Marin is a hotbed of birders. By the way to be hip, one should always say birder not birdwatcher. The word, birdwatcher, conjures up that Mr. Wilson image. Remember Dennis the Menace’s next door neighbor? Birdwatchers as nerds. In fact birding is one of the fastest growing sports in the country and totally cool. Anyway Jules works as a biologist for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and is generally acknowledged as a premier expert on black rails, a highly endangered species.

Eight intrepid souls gathered in the parking lot at Limantour in the dreary dawn. Binoculars dangled from our necks, bird spotting telescopes were firmly in our gloved hands and field guides were deep in our foulweather gear. We were ready for the day.

It was still dark when we saw our very first bird, a barn owl. It looked like a white apparition as it quietly flew by trying to get just one more mouse before the night ended. The rain stopped just as the rosy fingers of dawn surrounded us. A good omen.

We stopped at a freshwater marsh and listened to wrens, song sparrows, and coots. We watched a flock of long-billed dowitchers feeding in the mud. Their heads rocked rapidly up and down, up and down, as their long bills probed the mud. They reminded me of those little oil rigs you see near Bakersfield, except speeded up to 78 RPM.

Jules sent two of our party on a rail search around the marsh. Before they left he gave a great rendition of the call of the Virginia rail. It supposed to sound like a dirty old man laughing. Well, if Jules does become a dirty old man he’ll have a great laugh.

Well, there were no rails and the bird activity seemed rather low for a marsh. But as we headed over to the ocean things quickly improved. Jules scanned across the surf and far out to sea in his scope. He rapidly ticked off the names the birds ….surf scoters, common loons, the uncommon common murre, ancient murrelets, ruddy turnstones, fulmars and black-vented shearwaters. We were impressed with his ability to identify the birds so quickly and no one was going to argue with him.

So it went throughout the entire day as we traipsed out the Limantour sandspit. It rained hard, cleared, rained again. The sun eventually came out. The light was golden and rainbows filled the sky. All day we found birds, identified them and counted them. Nothing escaped our attention. It was fun. But by late-afternoon we were tired and looking forward to the end of the day — the compilation dinner.

All the groups from the Pt Reyes count convened at the Inverness Yacht Club for dinner. Most folks had been up since way before dawn but their energy was still high. In between mouthfuls everyone talked. Many friends now see each other only at these annual gatherings. It was definitely the birder-bonding hour.

Each group leader reported the results of their day to Dave Wimpheimer, an Inverness birder who is this years coordinator. After dinner Dave read off the names of all 188 bird species previously seen on the Pt. Reyes count. He instructed the audience to say yes if they saw the bird and no if they didn’t. As he began reading the bird names, a kind of rhythm developed and it sounded alot like zen chanting. And in fact we had sort of come to worship. It seemed like a bird fellowship hall, the Ancient Order of the Eagle or something. Everywhere was laughter, warmth and the shared passion of birding. Once a year we take the pulse of the planet, feeling its bird heartbeat. Because after all, like the fabled canary in the coal mine, the birds do tell us how the natural world is doing.

This years Point Reyes count had 199 species. The “hot” birds were a broad-winged hawk, Wilsons warblers, and Nashville warblers (all three should be in Central or South America now). Off the coast were hundreds of fulmars and a few black-vented shearwaters (relatives of the albatross). If the cold snap had come a bit earlier there would have been alot fewer species.

Every year the Audubon Christmas count is the largest single data collecting enterprise in the history of mankind. It generally takes nearly a year before the final results are complied and published by the National Audubon Society in their journal, American Birds. This information documents changing distribution patterns and declining or increasing bird populations. For example in 1989 a record of nearly 119 million birds were counted, this was up from 66 million birds the year before. That’s the good news. The bad news is that 73 million of these birds were in one area! Pine Parish, Louisiana had 20 million starlings and 53 million red-winged blackbirds; this comprised 60% of all the birds counted throughout the US and Canada! To quote from American Birds “Our hats are off (and umbrellas up) to counters estimating numbers in these vast winter roosts.”

If you would like to join one of the bird counts next year, I highly recommend it.
snow geese

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August 22, 2009