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Joining in the big December bird count.

Joining in the big December bird count

To those who don't birdwatch, it's bizarre, those small groups of men and women walking quietly down farm lanes in the predawn chill of early winter. The walkers pause often, sometimes to hoot, whistle, or play tapes, sometimes just to listen. Their reward is the sound of an owl answering or the chirps of a sparrow in the brush.

The owls, sparrows, and all other birds they see during the day are compiled for the annual National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, arguably the most labor-intensive collection of biological data in science. And Audubon member or not, if you're interested in birds, you can participate.

How the count works

The first count took place on a Christmas afternoon in 1900; now all the counts happen during a 16- to 20-day period that starts in mid-December.

Last season, some 300 counts occurred throughout the 13 Western states. One of the most prolific areas in the nation, with 193 species of birds counted, was Santa Barbara. Coastal counts usually total 120 to 200 species, while inland counts more commonly record 50 to 140 species.

Each Audubon chapter covers a circle 15 miles in diameter. The circle is usually divided into sections scouted by groups of 1 to 12 birders (the norm is 2 to 5--about a carload). Most groups start before dawn and count birds by species, number, and sometimes sex, until it's too dark to see. A typical day can easily last 8 to 12 hours.

In the evening, members of the groups meet, often in a restaurant or at somebody's house for a potluck, to compile totals. Rare or endangered birds are announced to general applause, while absence of usually reliable species generates discussion of why. From there the information goes to a regional compiler, then on to the editors of American Birds magazine, which combines and publishes the results from all of North America.

Researchers use the data to track changes in bird populations and ranges. It's the kind of information that led scientists in the '60s to realize that DDT was doing serious environmental damage.

How to contribute, what you can learn

While most of the best birders in the country go on Christmas counts, anybody who enjoys birding is encouraged to come.

If you're a relatively inexperienced birder, chances are you'll draw the job of recorder, writing down the numbers and species of birds your group sees. You'll still have plenty of time to look at birds, and your eyes, no matter how unskilled, will almost certainly pick up birds the others miss.

The atmosphere in the count groups we joined was friendly and relaxed, the more skilled birders always willing to point out field marks that set each kind of bird apart. Such one-on-one teaching can increase your birding skills tremendously in just a few hours, and going with experienced locals will also introduce you to the birding hot spots in the area you scout.

Bird counts aren't educational nature walks. Birders on the counts are intent on finding and identifying as many species as possible. But it is a rare chance to do some serious birding with real pros.

A Seattle birder we know said he identifies about half the birds he encounters by call alone. On a count we joined in Lancaster, California, birders were commonly identifying distantly soaring hawks by silhouette, since color and marks were almost invisible against the bright sky (on that day we saw more than a dozen species of hawks, owls, and eagles).

Working with first-rate birders will also show you just how far field ornithology has come in the past 86 years. Before the turn of the century, it was assumed that you had to shoot a bird to be able to identify it positively. Yet with just a pair of binoculars (the best birders rarely use field guides in their home territory), a good birder can identify what look like specks to the inexperienced observer.

Nuts and bolts

Christmas counts go on regardless of weather, so the most important tip is to dress in layers for the worst; you can take off whatever you don't need if the day warms up or dries out. Check with your group leader about footwear. Some groups drive a lot and walk little, while others walk miles or spend time in the mud around ponds, rivers, and swamps.

For the birding itself, you'll need binoculars, a notebook and pen, and a field guide that covers Western birds (for more about binoculars, see page 38 of the October 1985 Sunset). When you sign up for the count, ask whether you'll need to bring a lunch (your group may want to stop at a restaurant midday), and find out whether there's a potluck afterwards.

While children don't usually come on the counts--the day tends tobe too long for most--they're usually allowed if they can be quiet when the group is stalking birds. If they're not interested in a long day of birding, a better plan might be to leave them home during the day and invite them and perhaps your nonbirding spouse to the evening compilation, where families are usually welcome.

How to sign up for a count

The 1986-87 counts will be scheduled December 18 through January 4 across the country. Exact dates are set by local Audubon chapters, and they're almost never on Christmas; usually Saturdays or Sundays are chosen, less often weekdays. You can sign up for a count through your local Audubon chapter (in most major cities, you'll find its number in the phone book)--or check with your local library or natural history museum. If all else fails, write to Christms Bird Count Editor, American Birds, 950 Third Ave., New York 10022. Include your address and, if you live in the hinterlands, the name of a large town nearby.

Participation in the count costs $3, payable on the day of the count.

Photo: Bundled against the cold, small team of birdwatchers uses binoculars, a spotting scope, and notepad to count birds along an arm of Puget Sound in Washington

Photo: Smallest counting group consists of a spotter and a recorder. They total northern shovelers (above) on a country pond

Photo: Double-checking field marks, birders verify an unusual species before adding it to the day's total at the post-count potluck
COPYRIGHT 1986 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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