Christmas Bird Counts

Our oldest daughter, Vjera Thompson, shares a favorite holiday tradition in a second guest blog by one of our “kids.”

Like many people, I’m sure you have breathed a sigh of relief now that the holidays are over.  Although it’s great to see family and partake in traditions, it’s also great when life slows down a little.  I have a special holiday tradition that is very different than most holiday traditions.  I participate in Christmas Bird Counts!  On top of all the “normal” Christmas events, I also do three Audubon Christmas Bird Counts each holiday season.

You may be wondering, what is a Christmas Bird Count?  Let me explain!  Many years ago, people used to go out and hunt birds on Christmas day.  On Christmas day, 1900, an ornithologist named Frank Chapman proposed a new tradition–to census birds each Christmas instead of hunting them.  This tradition has continued and now there are many Christmas Bird Counts.  It is one of the longest-running sources for data on bird populations.  All the participants are volunteers and many are amateurs.

All the counts (over 2000 this year) are scheduled sometime between December 14th and January 5th.  Each count is a circle 15 miles in diameter.  In Eugene, the circle goes from the west edge of Springfield to Fern Ridge, south to Spencer’s Butte, and north to the Eugene airport.  The circle stays the same year after year.  Each circle is split into areas, and each area has a team that tries to census the birds in that area.  Eugene is in the Top 10 List for participants in the nation– it has 26 areas and usually more than 100 people counting in the field, and another 100 reporting feeder counts. This year 55 people called in requesting to be assigned to teams; many of them new to the Christmas Bird Count.  However, the leaders and areas are usually the same year to year; this way the birds are counted the same way each year and trends in the data can be analyzed.

People often ask, “What happens if you count the same bird twice?”  The reality is, for every bird I count, there are many more that go uncounted.  I’m trying to get a representative sample of the birds in my area.  As long as the sample method stays similar every year, trends will show up.  For example, if all the robins quit coming to Oregon and I keep reporting all the robins I see, eventually we would be able to tell that the robins were declining.

My first count was in December 1995, when I was 14, and I have participated in at least 43 counts over the last 17 years.  I usually lead an area for Florence, Coos Bay, and Eugene (all in Oregon).  I’ve also helped with Corvallis, OR, and Coquille Valley, OR, and one winter I was working on St. John in the Virgin Islands so I helped with the Christmas Bird Count down there.

CBC Team

A 2012 Eugene Team

On a typical count day, my husband Eddie and I will get up early–this year, we woke up at 2 am for Eugene–and head to our count area.  We hope for nice weather, but always bring rain gear–unfortunately a necessity in December in Oregon.  We often start while it is still dark so we can try for owls.  Once it gets light, we will walk an area, mark down everything we see, drive to the next stop, get out and walk, and continue until we’ve covered our whole area.  On the Eugene count, it is our job to climb Spencer’s Butte and look for Northern Pygmy Owl and Pileated Woodpecker.  After Spencer’s Butte, we walk through south Eugene neighborhoods for the rest of the day.  I wear a pedometer and usually walk about 15,000-25,000 steps during a Christmas Bird Count.  One year during Eugene’s count I hit a new record and walked 29,000 steps–almost 15 miles!  At the end of the day, we tally all our birds (Eugene counted almost 88,000 individual birds this year), change into dry shoes, and head to the countdown dinner.  Most counts have a tradition of gathering for a meal and sharing the highlights of the day.  The countdown dinner is one of my favorite parts of the count–getting to see old friends, swap stories, and warm up after a wet day.

Winter Scene
Winter Scene

I have many stories from doing Christmas Bird Counts.  I could tell you of the cold, cold day with a Marsh Wren walking on ice in a marsh and the snow melting and steaming as it hit the ocean waves.   I could tell you of getting invited into someone’s backyard and seeing a Red-breasted Sapsucker.  I could tell you of the sunny day in Florence when we counted over 60 species and heard birds singing like spring was coming.  But I think I will tell you the craziest story of all.

Rain in Florence

Rainy Day in Florence

We were doing the Florence Count.  We were on a road that goes through the middle of a marsh.  This marsh is along the river and the water level rises and drops with the tide.  We didn’t know it, but the road we were driving on had new gravel on it, and the gravel was likely to lose stability when the water rose too high.  It had been raining a lot and the tide was rising.  We were on a narrow gravel road, and saw someone driving toward us.  We pulled over to let them by.  We tried to pull back on the road, but we couldn’t.  Alas, we were stuck in the soft gravel.  We tried again, but it only made it worse–now the car was tilting toward the ditch.  We scrambled out of the car–what to do?  We were still discussing our options when a neighbor came out to see if we were okay.  We called a tow truck, but it would be at least an hour before they could come help us.  It was still pouring, so he invited us in.  While we waited, we counted a Bald Eagle flying over.  We heard stories of the history of the neighborhood and we found out that he saw a Barn Owl some mornings.  When the tow truck finally came, we went back to the car and discovered that while we were waiting, the tide had come up into the car!  It all ended well.  The tow truck was able to rescue us, the car dried out after a couple weeks, and now when we walk that road (we’ll never drive it again), we sometimes say hi to the neighbor who helped us out.  We’ve even gotten lucky enough to see his Barn Owl a couple times!

I hope you have enjoyed hearing about my holiday tradition and that you appreciate and enjoy the traditions you have.  Maybe you will even consider joining mine–many Christmas Bird Counts welcome amateurs participating and will pair you with an expert.  The birding community has a strong culture of encouraging beginners to participate and recognizing the value that everyone brings.  Even at the age of 14, I was welcomed and included in the Christmas Bird Count and more.

Christmas Bird Counts depend on citizen science–regular people collecting data that scientists can use.  The power behind citizen science is not what one person can do, but what 63,000 observers can do when all their data is pooled together.  I am proud to be a citizen scientist and a contributor to the success of Christmas Bird Counts.

More history of the Christmas Bird Count can be read here:

About scottandjody

Scott and Jody have been married for 44 years and have six adult children and four grandchildren. Scott worked as a CPA for over 32 years and Jody was a homeschooling mom. They have been serving as missionaries in Quito, Ecuador since 2014.
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