Families, long-time birders, newbies and experts, armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists went out on a mission earlier this month.
Teams of bird watchers swarmed birding hotspots from Greenbank Farm to the Clinton ferry dock to contribute to the 113th annual Christmas Bird Count, locally sponsored by the Whidbey Audubon Society.
The morning started quiet and many of the volunteers shivered behind their binoculars on the crisp Saturday. But as skies brightened, the birds were on the move.
“We all headed out with our teams, stopping the car at shorelines and parks to count everything we saw,” birder Govinda Rosling said. “We also encourage nocturnal birding, and some folks got up extra early for owling.” Nineteen owls were tallied.
The birders enjoyed the “hunt,” but they froze and endured high winds for those special moments, Rosling said.
“Our highlight this year was a Cassin’s auklet — spotted by Diane Kaufman, who had never been in a bird count before, she said. ‘Hey what’s that little black duck over there?’” she asked.
The Cassin’s auklet is a species that is more common on the coast, and seldom seen in the inland waters, Rosling explained.
“The other gem, was a brown pelican that has been hanging around the ferry dock,” Rosling said.
The brown pelican is a species that is expanding its range, at first seen only Oregon and south, then in south Puget Sound, and now here at the Clinton ferry dock.
The event drew 68 participants who counted 15,485 individual birds, said Rosling, who compiled the data for the group. Even though the weather was cold and very windy, 648 more individual birds were counted than last year.
“The most abundant species this year was the pine siskin: we tallied 3,332 of these little guys,” Rosling said.
Historically it was a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “side hunt.” The goal was to choose sides, head into the fields with a gun to kill and then pack feathered and furred quarry back to be counted. The side with the most dead birds won.
The tradition morphed when Frank Chapman, an ornithologist and officer in the National Audubon Society, offered an alternate tradition. He, along with other conservationists, decided that rather than kill birds, it was better to count them. The first Christmas Bird Census took place Dec. 25, 1900, when 27 citizen scientists counted birds in 25 places from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, Calif.
It’s very satisfying to be part of the longest-running survey of animal populations of any kind, said Frances Wood, a birding expert and the author of a Record column on the topic.
“It’s interesting to see how populations of birds change, sometimes the numbers go up, sometimes down,” Wood said. “And then it is exciting to count a very unusual bird, like the brown pelican down at the ferry dock.”
The Christmas Bird Count is a national event and is the longest-running wildlife census in the country, now in its 113th year. Across the country, thousands of volunteers take part in the adventure that has become a holiday tradition among bird enthusiasts.
Each of the participants who annually brave rain, wind or snow, to take part in the Christmas Bird Count makes an enormous contribution to conservation. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations — and thus help guide conservation action.
“I’ve participated in various Christmas bird counts for at least a couple decades,” Wood said. “One year my husband and I initiated a Christmas Bird Count on the northern shore of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Another year we helped set up a count on the west coast of Ecuador. I’ve done them bundled with five layers of clothing, as this last Saturday, or in shorts, T-shirts and sandals as the one in Mexico.”
Data from the bird count has been used in countless research articles that influence local, state and national conservation legislation. Therefore, the birders must produce reliable data.
“No matter where they are held, the same format and protocol is used,” Wood explained. “I remember during the one in Ecuador at around 2 p.m. the leaders all wanted to quit for siesta and then start again the following morning to finish out the allocated hours.”
But Wood kept them on track.
“I explained that we had to keep going, we only had one 24-hour period,” she said. “We decided on a compromise — it really was very hot that day — a quick siesta and then back to the counting.”
Luckily, there was no sign of slowing down for local bird counters.
The Whidbey group worked hard from 8 a.m. through 4 p.m. and some had gotten up before dawn to inventory the nocturnal birds.
The group gathered at Trinity Lutheran Church in Freeland after a hard day at work to record the number of birds counted, get warm, share experiences and eat.
Although the event has been a tradition for over a century nationally, the South Whidbey circle is a new established area, only in its second year, Rosling said. There are other circles around Whidbey Island, including Port Townsend, Edmonds and Everett. North Whidbey birds were counted Dec. 22.
Not that South Enders hadn’t been keeping an eye on local bird populations, Rosling said. South Whidbey has a very skilled and enthusiastic group of bird watchers.
“It just so happened that a South Whidbey circle hadn’t been established until 2011 when I applied with National Audubon to initiate an area for South Whidbey,” she said.
Today, teams will cover North Whidbey, including the Crockett Lake/Keystone Spit area and north to Deception Pass.
The Whidbey Audubon Society mission is dedicated to the understanding, appreciation and protection of wildlife species on Whidbey Island and surrounding areas.
Their next general meeting, open to the public, is on Thursday, Jan. 10 at the Freeland Unitarian Church. The program begins at 7:30 p.m. and the topic is the Salish Sea habitat.
For more information, visit whidbeyaudubon.org.