November 22, 2018
(by Joe Zabransky) I had recently turned 11 years old when I experienced my first Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) in Bergen County, NJ. This CBC was the first opportunity to take my new birthday binoculars, received two weeks earlier, on a real spin in the field. Birding was only three months old for me, so I was just beginning to know the common birds in the region, all observed with a pair of beat up opera glasses given to me by my grandfather and probably purchased toward the end of the 19th Century!
Knowledgeable adult mentors surrounded me on the field trips and their presence on the CBC was just as valuable. I quickly found out, however, that bird counts were approached in a different way than field trips. Because there is a prescribed area to cover with a limited amount of daylight, there is a tendency to keep on the move and not tarry too long at any one location. Field trips are organized to visit special habitats (marshes, lakes, ocean, etc.) at certain times during the year. All the CBCs occur roughly within a three-week period and with a given CBC team, you might walk residential streets, visit cemeteries, look at backyard feeders, hang around garbage dumps or walk in city parks.
The CBC period is held from 14 December to 5 January every year. An individual count can be held on any day during that period but usually occur on weekends. A CBC area is a circle with a 15-mile diameter, usually centered on a town. The circle is divided into irregular sections, each with a designated team and leader who identify and tally the number of individuals for each species at each stop. You may be observing and counting from a car or getting out and walking a few streets and roads for a while. I always prefer the latter because you will usually see more individual birds on foot than from a moving vehicle.
Later in my teenage years, the state herpetologist of New Jersey became a birding mentor and I then went on the Boonton, NJ CBC with the Urner Ornithological Club (UOC), a self-professed all male group in the 1950s. They were, however, a club of outstanding competitive birders from all over the State. So, I participated in 3:00 AM wakeups to go owling on back country roads as part of 12-hr CBCs on cold winter days. There was one significant difference between Audubon and UOC CBCs. Audubon lunches were taken with youwhile UOC members would have sit-down lunches at a diner!
For about twenty years I took a long break from birding (academics and living abroad got in the way) and did not take it up again until I moved to New Hampshire in 1982. A faculty colleague and his wife were two of the most avid birders in the State, so it was natural to resume birding again and the CBC was my starting activity. One time, when I was team leader of one of the sections of the Laconia, NH CBC, I arose at 3:00 AM, dressed appropriately, drove for 45 minutes to get to my CBC sector and started calling owls. There I was, standing beside my car, the air calm, not a cloud in the sky and the temperature at 6 degrees F calling a Barred Owl, then trying meager attempts at Great-Horned, Saw-Whet and Eastern Screech Owls. A light came on in a distant house. I was expecting someone to come out with a shotgun, but the light went off again. I have successfully called in several Barred Owls over the years but the best I could do this frosty morning, long before sunrise, was one isolated car with a caring driver who asked if I needed any road assistance!
I tried to encourage my wife, Emily, who is an artist and lover of animals (snakes excluded — unless they come bearing at least one leg!), to go birding with me. I was planning to go with my colleague and his wife on the NH Coastal CBC, so I thought what better way to introduce Emily to birding than a CBC. This CBC required a 3:30 AM rise, a drive to meet our partners and a long drive to the coast at Hampton Beach to begin scanning the ocean at 6:00 AM. For some, this might sound a bit much to just get started, but there is more. Did I mention that the air temperature on this fine morning was 10 degrees F and the wind was howling out of the northwest at a comfy 25 mph! Several inches of snow covered the hard, frozen ground. After ten hours of glacial exposure, in and out of the car, I lost all hope of ever inducting Emily into the community of birders! The very best upside to the suffering we endured that day was a Snowy Owl sitting on a beach-front picnic table, just 15 ft from our car. The moral of this story is always use warm, sunny spring days to introduce folks, especially your spouse, to the joys of birding!
Counting birds in large flocks has always been a standing joke between Emily and me. She recognizes that it is nearly impossible to count to the nearest whole bird when a flock of 127 Canada Geese fly over. Isolating a known number, say ten geese, then extrapolating, by groups of ten, over the remainder of the flock will give you a pretty good “estimate” (~130) of the number in the entire flock. Emily says that’s not good science, and I say you are right, but it is good community science. Counting birds is not an exact science, the methods and equipment are not consistent among observers and certainly observers are not all scientists. Most of all observer’s eyes are all different.
Nevertheless, approximate information on bird numbers can carry a lot of weight. On one Laconia, NH CBC no Blue Jays were seen in our sector. This was very unusual for a bird that is a year-round resident of NH. When the compilation was held at the end of the day, only two Blue Jays were reported for the entire count circle (177 sq. mi.). When the final National Audubon Statistics were published for that year the count across the northern U.S. uncovered an obvious plummet in the Blue Jay population. It wouldn’t have mattered whether our NH count had reported 2 or 10 jays, it still would have been a low number. The cause of the sudden population decrease was something that scientists could study but the data were taken by a community of non-scientists via the annual CBC.
One year I decided to combine a trip back to New Jersey to visit my then 92-year-old mother with a special reunion CBC with my childhood buddies, Doug and Frank Gill, in Barnegat, NJ along the Jersey shore. There were even some aging UOC birders there from the old days. I had not birded with either brother since Urner days some 30 years prior. We had a great time catching up on our lives and talking about “the old days”.
Doug and Frank were always competitive birders, but the respect for each other and their shared love of nature, especially birds, became the basis of their respective Ph.Ds in Zoology. Frank is one of the world’s leading ornithologists who has always been a large-scale thinker and the motivating force behind such projects as eBird, the Great Backyard Bird Count, the Birds of North America encyclopedia series and author of the well-used, college text Ornithology. Doug is an emeritus professor of Zoology at the University of Maryland who has spent many years studying frog populations, wild orchids (lady slippers) and the effects of restored indigenous grasses on the return of bird populations to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He also contributed a couple of pieces to Bird Note on the latter work in Maryland. Sadly, I must say with complete confidence that none of the birding acumen, amassed by the Gill brothers, has ever rubbed off on me!
The reunion brings me to one of the best aspects of birding, camaraderie, which is enjoyed by all who participate, especially in the CBCs, because we enjoy the outdoors, seeing birds in their natural habitat and contributing to the overall science of bird ecology. The compilation of all the bird sightings at the end of the day is just another part of this shared enjoyment, including what sector group saw the best bird of the day, how did this year’s total compare to previous years and which species showed a decline or increase. Audubon compilation dinners around the country are quite similar. Chili is the usual main course although the NH Coastal CBC always had moose meat in their chili — what can I say, “Live Free or Die”! Then there is the even simpler version of dinner — a large order out of pizza. Of course, the UOC in New Jersey had to be different by commandeering a large section of a restaurant for a sit-down dinner to top off a long day of counting!
When I moved to the Olympia area eight years ago and began participating in the local CBC, it was not a surprise to find the same camaraderie among the participants out here. I have birded the same sector on Cooper Point each year which covers a variety of habitats including open water, residential, forest, a golf course and a horse farm. Perhaps the only difference from my CBC experiences back east is that we start a bit later in the morning out here unless, of course, you go owling. I have long since put in my time owling and eagerly leave that now to others! There is one other difference in the CBCs in the South Puget Sound region from those back in the Northeast, namely I traded snow and cold for generally cloudy and wet conditions! Overall, I prefer the latter.
For over a hundred years the Audubon CBC has produced a wealth of valuable data, data that scientists have used as bases for bird studies. That is reason enough to participate in a CBC, but I trust I have also given you an insight into the friendships, fun and memories that CBCs have garnered for me. If you have never participated in a CBC, I encourage you to do so. Learn to identify birds, meet a new friend, have some fun in the process, consume a chili dinner and most all, contribute to science.