Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bonkers for birds: Audubon's Christmas bird count

You have to be kind of cuckoo—for birds, that is—to join in the Audubon Society's annual Christmas bird count. This year, I joined the other nuthatches standing in the December drizzle to spot, identify, and count hundreds of birds. And I had a blast. I got to know some neat people, enjoyed a fabulous walk through an oak-filled canyon, and got much better acquainted with my nearby habitat. And I felt like I was making a small contribution to science. Yep--me!

It's a labor of love that has taken place across this nation for 111 years, and now I know what keeps people joining in year after year. You don't have to be an expert bird watcher to take part, thank Heavens, just be willing to help keep eyes and ears open and try to identify and count. What's the point of all this effort? Says the Audubon group, "Each of the citizen scientists who annually braves snow, wind, or rain, to take part in the Christmas Bird Count makes an enormous contribution to conservation. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations - and to help guide conservation action."

And what did we find? In my portion of the Sacramento Valley, we counted a total of 4045 birds (says Ruth, head of our bird group); the species count was 76—about average for the last 7 years. Compared to last year, Ruth adds, some of the species that we counted significantly more of are: wood duck, cinnamon teal, ring-necked pheasant, California quail, white-tailed kite, dunlin, bushtit, ruby-crowned kinglet, spotted and California towhee, and lark sparrow. And while its participants may be amateurs, the annual count helps real researchers spot trends and ends up helping birds. "The data collected by observers over the past century allow researchers, conservation biologists, and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America," says the Audubon's website.

I was happy to hear one of my favorite birds, the bufflehead duck (above), was spotted in our area. But what I wanted to see were wood ducks. The males of this specie are as gorgeous as Tom Cruise (and probably as vain). Dramatic, vividly colored, almost garish birds—this was one bird I was eager to see on my Audubon walk. And I wasn't disappointed. At the end of our morning walk, just as the drizzle was letting up and we were about to give it up for the day, we caught sight of eight pair of wood ducks floating about a small pond just a few yards from us. And thanks to the real experts I was walking with (thanks Don and Maxine), I knew what I was looking at.

Details: The annual summary of the Christmas Bird Count, American Birds, is published each fall and contains the regional summaries for all of the counts conducted; check the Audubon website. And if you want to participate next December, sign up; learn more from the Audubon website or contact your local chapter of the Audubon Society.

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