Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Bird Count Dec. 28

The Christmas Bird Count is now underway. A yearly tradition in which groups of North American bird-lovers pick a day around the winter solstice and search their designated areas to count every bird they see is more popular than ever.

Sponsored by the National Audubon Society, this is held every year between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. This year the coastal bays watershed count is scheduled for Dec. 28. Volunteers armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists brave the cold weather on a mission to assess the health and record changes in resident populations and ranges, before spring migrants return.

The data collected is used to help guide conservation action, and when combined with other surveys, provides a vital look at how the continent's bird populations have been altered in the past hundred years. This long term perspective makes it possible to develop strategies to protect birds and their habitat and help identify environmental issues that can affect humans as well. Local trends can reveal habitat fragmentation or provide a warning of an immediate environmental threat, such as groundwater contamination.

As Audubon president John Flicker put it, birds are “the canary in the coal mine — a sign that something is going on” in terms of environmental issues. The Christmas Bird Count not only helps identify birds in need of conservation action but also reveals conservation success stories, documenting the resurgence of the once endangered Bald Eagle and Brown Pelican, as well as significant increases in waterfowl populations.

The Christmas Bird Count started in 1900 when the National Audubon Society proposed it as an alternative to the then popular holiday activity called the Side Hunt, a yuletide bird shooting competition. Conservation was a budding concept at the time, and many scientists and naturalists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations.

Ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the Audubon Society, proposed a new a Christmas Bird Census idea that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt and kill them. The first count was held on Christmas day in 1900 with just 27 participants finding 90 species of birds.

Flicker calls the inception of the Christmas Bird Count a “visionary act” because no one could have predicted how important it would become as a resource and tool for conservation. Flicker says it allows birds to “send us a wake-up call about the importance of addressing the warming of our climate and the loss of vital habitat through action at every level.”

Today the count is the longest-running “citizen science” project in the world, with tens of thousands of Americans participating in the Christmas Bird Count, spotting more than 2,000 species last year. Volunteer birders participate for conservation efforts, but it’s also a good way to connect with nature, despite the cold temperatures, and has become an annual holiday tradition for many families.

In April the MD-DC Audubon designated the Coastal Bays as an Important Bird Area – a global effort to identify and conserve areas that are vital to birds and other biodiversity. The Coastal Bays geographical area has the highest species total of any Maryland Christmas Bird Count and is also typically the highest species total for any Christmas Bird Count at this latitude in the United States, averaging 150 each year.

For more information about the Christmas Bird Count, go to