Feathered friends: South Whidbey birders take stock of avian population

The Christmas count is the longest running citizen science survey in the world and provides important data on avian population trends.

Govinda Rosling consults her identification guide as Bernita Sanstad looks across the shores of Goss Lake.

A group of six Whidbey bird enthusiasts gathered on the shore of Goss Lake Saturday morning and peered excitedly through their binoculars, hoping to get a peak at the bald eagle perched upon the opposite shore.

“I’d hang my head in shame if we did the tally and came back without a bald eagle,” said Govinda Rosling with a chuckle. Rosling was the expedition’s team leader, and is an Audubon Society member and chairwoman of South Whidbey’s Audubon Christmas bird count.

The bird count is an annual event in its 115th year. The count originated in 1900 when ornithologist Frank Chapman, an officer of the Audubon Society, proposed the idea. Prior to the turn of the century, it was a regular Christmas tradition to participate in a game called a “Side Hunt” in which people competed to see how many birds they could shoot and bag. The person with the most dead birds at the end of the game was deemed the winner. Due to severely declining populations in certain species, explained Rosling, Chapman came up with the idea to count rather than kill the birds. The count began with approximately 25 participants and is now composed of 70,000 counters.

The Christmas count is the longest running citizen science survey in the world and provides important data on avian population trends.

“We’re just getting a slice of that population. Over time that slice really recurs, really sets into an overlying trend. Each year it builds on the last year,” said Rosling.

She explained that, as the compiler for the South Whidbey count, she sends the data from each of the teams to the National Audubon Society which publishes the national data each spring. The data is published on the society’s website and is used by state agencies, researchers and bird lovers nationwide.

For avian enthusiasts like Rosling and her team, it’s also a lot of fun.

Diana Connors, a member of Rosling’s team, was on her first count in over 30 years. Connors is a member of the National Audubon Society and frequent solo birder. She and her friend, Marti Murphy, have taken great joy in spotting rare birds on vacations to locations such as Hawaii and South America.

“I’m always looking for birds,” Connors said.

“I do it because I love it,” said Rosling, adding that the count is especially important because the avian population “echoes the health of the whole island.”

South Whidbey’s count is in its fourth year; this is the first year a team covered Camano Island. Goss Lake served as the epicenter, with the 12 teams branching out in a 15-mile diameter circle around the lake. Teams covered Langley, Trillium, Useless Bay, Clinton, South Whidbey State Park, Saratoga, Deer Lagoon, Camano and other areas. Rosling’s team covered Goss Lake, Baby Island, Bells Beach and Holmes Harbor.

The team picked up several species after their Goss Lake stop, Rosling said, in part due to the dissipation of fog in the later morning and into the afternoon.

Overall, the weather was a fairly pleasant though chilly 40 degrees, absent of snow or rain which might have impeded the count.

Rosling’s team, which was composed of Bernita Sanstad, Bob French, Sandy Shipley,  Murphy and Connors, began their day by venturing from the meet-up spot at Trinity Lutheran Church to a private property just off of Goodell Road. The property owner was one of several who had allowed access for the birders in order to help them get a more accurate count.

There were 70 volunteers total this year, an increase from years prior, according to Rosling. The teams counted 21,299 individual birds.

The most abundant species, said Rosling, was the dunlin, a shore bird, of which the group counted 3,641, most of which were present at Deer Lagoon. The teams also counted 2,234 pine siskin, which Rosling said increase in population in the area every two years. Last year, she said, there were less than 100 counted on South Whidbey.

Several rare birds such as white throated sparrow, cassin’s auklet and two northern saw’whett owls were spotted, constituting the need for Rosling to fill out a specific rare bird form to send in to the National Audubon Society.

The northern saw’whett owls, said Rosling, were spotted by Steve Ellis in South Whidbey State Park.

“He’s got the best ears on the South End, bionic ears,” said Rosling, explaining that the owls are barely as large as a human hand.

A northern goss hawk was spotted off Cultus Bay Road. Rosling explained that this variety of hawk is not rare, though they are usually seen off the hills of the Cascade Mountains rather than in the area of Whidbey Island.

Rosling also spotted a black scoter off of Baby Island, which she explained is the bird Daffy Duck is modeled after.

“That was really cool for me,” she said.

Next year’s count will be held on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016.

“Birds are amazing. They have really cool calls and they can fly,” said Gosling with a chuckle. “They have such diversity, our fine feathered friends.”


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