Christmas Bird Counts: An Introduction
By Michelle Hamilton
Every year, thousands of birders get together in groups and spend one whole day counting birds. They keep track of which species they saw, where they saw them, and how many they saw. When they are done they enter the information into a database of thousands of other birders doing the same thing. This tradition is called the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and it helps track the winter distribution of birds throughout not only the United States, but also in Canada, parts of Mexico, and even a few other places in the world.
The Christmas Bird Count was started in 1900 by a scientist named Frank Chapman. Before the count was started, people used to go out on Christmas Day and hunt, and whoever brought home the most birds won. Frank Chapman decided to start something new. Instead of killing the birds, he decided that it would be better for the birds if they were just counted. He got 27 birders together and they started the first CBC. Ten years later the number was up to 192, and now, 114 years later there are over 59,000 people who contribute to this census.
The count for this winter is over, but it’s not to late to think about next year. To get started, just head over to the CBC website, look for a group in your area and sign up. On count day, bring your birding supplies (binoculars, camera, notebook to write down sightings, etc.) and join your group to enjoy a day of birding. When you are done, be sure to report your results so that the information that you have collected can go to work to help track status and trends of bird populations. To learn more about how the CBC helps birds visit the Audubon website.
To get you inspired, below young birders from different parts of the U.S. write about their Christmas Bird Count experiences this past year.
- First, Aidan Place gives us a detailed account of his experience during this year’s CBC in Washington County, Pennsylvania.
- Then Drew Meyers takes us to the sub-zero temperatures of Michigan’s Keweenaw County for a recount of what his small group of dedicated birders counted this year.
- Finally, to counteract those cold temperatures, Ryan Vosbigian shares memories of some of his favorite CBC experiences in southern California.
Buffalo Creek Watershed CBC in Washington County, PA
by Aidan Place
Christmas Bird Count season is one of the greatest times of the year. You get to go out, do some great birding, see some cool places, and there’s usually a lot of food to eat afterwords. This year I wasn’t able to do quite as many CBCs as I would have liked but I did get to do a great morning of counting at the Buffalo Creek Watershed. I was very much looking forward to this count as it is an area which I had not explored very much in the past and was very interested in birding thoroughly.
I awoke early on the day of the count and tried to stay awake as my dad and I got into the car and drove the hour to where the count was taking place. The meeting spot was in a church in the small town of Taylorstown in rural Washington County, Pennsylvania. Inside the church we collected the maps and directions for the area in which we would be birding (we were assigned to Sector 3) before we went out to start counting.
Our sector was mainly composed of a large, mostly wooded State Game Lands surrounded by the agricultural fields, typical of this area of PA. The main areas to bird in the sector were the roads that make up the sectors borders and the two roads which run through the game lands itself. In addition, there are many trails and walkable areas throughout the SGL.
We decided to begin birding by driving the rim road before cutting south into the game lands itself. The first birds of the day presented themselves as we began. A Carolina Wren vocalizing from off in the woods was bird number one, followed almost immediately by two Song Sparrows. Getting into more wooded habitat we started to hear and see Northern Cardinals and Golden-crowned Kinglets as we drove along slowly. However, we soon came to a pullout which marked the beginning of a set of trails running into the game lands. American Crows flew by overhead as we got out of the car, as did a pair of ducks which I was unable to identify as they whizzed past at high speed.
The sound of Carolina Chickadees accompanied us as we walk down the trail, wet and soggy from the melting snow. Cardinals could be heard chipping from the bushes as we dipped down into a valley off of the ridge line where we had parked. When we had about reached the bottom of the hill, the first surprise bird of the day made an appearance. It was an Eastern Towhee calling from just off the trail. While fairly common in Pennsylvania in summer, these birds are always a nice surprise in the colder months. While I never ended up actually seeing the towhee, just hearing it made me excited thinking about other interesting birds we would find that day.
Continuing along, we quickly discovered that a creek crossed over the trail. Due to the cold, we decided that walking across probably wasn’t the best idea so we decided to turn around and head back to the car.
When we returned to the pullout, we continued to drive along the road bordering the game lands. It wasn’t long before we came to the intersection of the rim road and the road going through the game lands. We decided to turn off of the rim road and began to drive through the SGL. The drive through the game lands was very scenic and the woods looked beautiful in the snow. Golden-crowned Kinglets and chickadees remained the most common birds but we also encountered two red-tailed hawks and the first few Blue Jays of the day. The road through the SGL wasn’t the most maintained road in the world (we had to do four creek crossing to get through) but it was worthwhile none the less.
Emerging on the other side of the SGL, we decided to drive down the rim road until we reached the border with West Virginia (which was also the border of our sector). As we drove along, we began to start seeing large groups of Dark-eyed Juncos feeding along the road. They were hard to see from a distance, but as we got closer, 20 or 30 of them would flush from the roadside and disappear into the woods. It struck me as odd to see junco flocks of that size along the roadside. My only hypothesis was that they were eating something, but I could not think of what it could be.
A little bit later, we came upon an area of meadows bordered by forest which looked like prime sparrow habitat. We hadn’t seen American Tree or White-throated sparrows that day, so I was curious to see what I could find. We parked the car along the roadside and then got out to hike down towards the part of the meadow that hadn’t been mowed. As we approached the meadow, I spotted a couple of American Tree Sparrows which flushed up from the grass and flew away. We then moved to the edge of the forest (where there was a deer path you could follow without causing much disturbance to the habitat) and began to walk along to see what would flush. Song Sparrows were the main species we saw but juncos and trees sparrows were present in good numbers, as well. However, we quickly became very cold as we were exposed to the biting wind, so we wisely and quickly retreated back to the warmth of the car.
As we continued along the road, we came up to a house with a bird feeder out front. We stopped and began to count birds which were coming into the feeder. We had only been there for about 30 seconds when a man walked out, wondering what we were doing. My dad got out to explain and the man appeared quite interested. He even told us that he has seen Bald Eagles in the area before (which is quite surprising considering the habitat)! It always good to stop and talk to passersby and others who show interest in birds. You never know; you might just convince them to take up birding.
Not long after that we reached the border with West Virginia and turned around to head back along the road. We figured that we would see nothing new as we went back but apparently we were wrong. As we drove along, I spotted a small duck swimming in the creek which runs alongside the road. I quickly got out of the car to get a closer look and discovered that it was an immature (I think) Hooded Merganser. This was our first waterfowl of the day (besides an unidentifiable flyby) so we were quite happy.
A little bit farther down the road, we were even more pleased to encounter three more hooded mergs (two of which were adult males) as well as a few Common Mergansers.
We were beginning to run out of time (I had to be back up in Pittsburgh by the afternoon) so we decided to fully circumnavigate the road bordering the game lands before heading back to the church.
The main highlight of the drive was a Belted Kingfisher as well as a Canada Goose which quite sadly had a badly broken wing. The wing was bent at a very odd angle, and it didn’t seem like the goose would last much longer.
We completed the drive of the border roads faster than we had thought, so with the extra time we had, we decided to get out and walk one of the trails through the game lands. The trail was a little muddy but very worthwhile as we were able to see the first White-throated Sparrows of the day, as well as a few more juncos.
We quickly ran out of time however and began to drive back to the church. All in all, it was a great day of winter birding in southwestern Pennsylvania. We got to see some cool birds and some cool places. However, one of the things that I was most excited about was that we only saw four cars the entire time! In a world as crowded as ours, it is good to know that there are some places which remain quiet and calm among all the chaos.
We ended the day with 29 species, which is not to bad for the time of year. I would like to whole-heartedly thank Larry Helgerman who organizes and compiles the count every year. I would also like to thank those who brought food to the potluck lunch after the counting was over. Your hard work and food was greatly appreciated. A complete species list can be found below.
The Keweenaw County Christmas Bird Count
by Drew Meyers
This year’s Keweenaw County Christmas Bird Count started in a temperature of two degrees above zero and with about two feet of snow on the ground. There was no open water to speak of, despite the fact that half the count circle is actually Lake Superior. Amazingly enough, I had two teammates as devoted/crazy as I am—Dana Neufeld, a friend my age, and Joseph Youngman, a long-time veteran. Together, we represented half the bird-counting force of the entire CBC.
We entered the count circle at 7:50 AM and set about the task of prying birds out of the frozen landscape. Failing to find owls, our first bird was American Goldfinch, quickly followed by the other usuals—Black-capped Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, American Crow, Blue Jay, and Downy Woodpecker.
As the temperature picked up (it got as warm as eleven degrees), so did the birds. The highlight came mid-morning, when a routine stroll down a county highway turned up a Black-backed Woodpecker which was willing to be observed at a range smaller than the close focus of my binoculars. I almost didn’t notice the Golden-crowned Kinglets until one got between me and the woodpecker.
By noon, we had all of the common species and the focus turned to finding the less common ones. We got White-breasted Nuthatch in one of the few stretches of deciduous forest, Pine Grosbeaks in a bog, and Bald Eagle over the frozen bay.
By the end of the day the wind picked up and ripped the ice out of the bay and we managed to get Bufflehead, Red-breasted Merganser, and Common Goldeneye in the last few minutes of usable daylight. Unfortunately, the same wind dropped the windchill well below zero and pushed in a snowstorm, meaning there was no point in owling. We drove to the compilation with a very respectable fifteen species.
The other groups had similarly productive days. The highlights included Purple Finch, American Robin, Dark-eyed Junco, and Harris’s Sparrow. The lowlights: we missed Boreal Chickadee (again) and found no redpolls either (not entirely surprising; last year we had a whopping total of four and two were Hoaries). Total species: 23. Total individuals: 540. A pretty good year!
Southern California CBC Recollections
by Ryan Vosbigian