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Storms can't clip the wings of Christmas Bird Count.

Byline: Rick Eggleston

COLUMN: OUTDOORS

While many of us will be heading to the mall on Saturday to return that purple shirt from Aunt Flo, or busy traveling to the next holiday party, a hearty group of folks will rise at the crack of dawn and make their way to the Wachusett Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary (WMWS) in Westminster.

For what, you ask? For the great Christmas Bird Count, of course.

First held in 1900 as an alternative to the annual Christmas competition "side hunts" popular at the time, the Christmas Bird Count was proposed by ornithologist Frank Chapman as a way of counting North American birds instead of killing them.

Chapman's vision endures today as a three-week event. For the 109th time since its inception, thousands of amateur and professional bird watchers will gather throughout the country - and even around the world - to take stock of the bird population.

This year's count officially kicked off Dec. 14 and runs until Jan. 5. The WMWS was supposed to have conducted its count already, but the recent ice storm intervened and forced it to be rescheduled for Saturday.

No problem, said WMWS caretaker Dick Knowlton, who is organizing this year's count with Charles Caron.

"This year could prove interesting," Knowlton said. "There are different variables every year that can affect the count and what birds we see. The impact the ice storm has had in areas may be a factor."

Knowlton ought to know - the building in Westminster that the WMWS calls home had its power restored just earlier this week.

To conduct a proper count, volunteers will set out in groups to assigned areas where they spread out and cover a 15-mile radius. Every bird they see - from chickadees to snowy owls - is counted. The trick, of course, is trying not to count the same bird twice.

"The birds are recorded and (the count) sent to the National Audubon Society," Knowlton said. "They use the data to track the migration patterns and behavior of the birds, and conservation efforts."

In addition to Westminster, Knowlton said, other areas covered in the count include Ashburnham, Gardner, Princeton and Leominster.

The Quabbin Reservoir and surrounding areas are other hotspots for counters, said Chris Buelow of the East Quabbin Bird Club.

"Eagles and ravens are a main draw, along with a wide variety of waterfowl," Buelow said. "What I enjoy about the counts is that they get participants to look at the region as a whole as they search every habitat within their assigned block. ... And because the counts have been going on in the same areas for so long, trends begin to emerge about where the key habitats within the region are, as well as trends about species populations."

Among some of the significant birds seen in various spots, Buelow said, are "snow buntings and horned larks, swamps for eastern bluebirds, northern flickers and winter wrens, and back roads in the predawn for saw-whet owls."

Those interested in the WMWS can call Knowlton at (978) 464-2753 or Caron at (978) 874-5649.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Rick Eggleston can be reached by e-mail at telegramoutdoors@yahoo.com.
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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 25, 2008
Words:527
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