Birding in the National Parks: Time For The Christmas Bird Counts

Counters in warmer climes -- say Everglades, Bicayne, and Dry Tortugas national parks, as well as Big Cypress National Preserve and Gulf Islands National Seashore -- might tally some Brown Pelicans - not a traditional Christmas card bird! Kirby Adams photo.

Christmas is coming and what do you think birders are dreaming of? Swans-a-swimming, turtle doves, and partridges in pear trees? Perhaps, but most of us are preparing for the annual Christmas Bird Count.

For the 112th consecutive year, the National Audubon Society is sponsoring the Christmas Bird Count. Volunteer bird-watchers from all over North America head out and count all the birds they can find within prescribed areas.

The CBC was born of a tradition known as the Christmas Side Hunt. Folks took to the fields with shotguns and rifles and blasted everything they saw. Teams that shot the bigger pile of animals “won” the informal competition.

As the conservation movement began to blossom and more enlightened minds prevailed, an ornithologist by the name of Frank Chapman proposed that people go out and count birds on the holiday rather than shoot them.

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Red-tailed hawks ften migrate from the northernmost parks of the lower 48 states, but climate change is altering that behavior. Kirby Adams photo.

Twenty-seven adventurous birders took Chapman up on his challenge and counted a few thousand birds among 90 different species. That was the Christmas of 1900.

In 2011, thousands of birders ventured forth and counted more than 61 million birds. A couple months ago, we explored how a birder could use eBird to be a citizen scientist during any visit to a national park. This month, you can participate in the oldest continuous citizen-fueled research project in the world by joining the Christmas Bird Count.

“It’s a globally recognized example of crowd-science,” says Gary Langham, Audubon’s chief scientist. Scientists rely on the remarkable trend data of Audubon’s CBC to better understand how birds are faring in North America and beyond our borders.

“Data from Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count are at the heart of hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies,” adds Dr. Langham. “CBC data have informed the U. S. State of the Birds Report, issued by the Department of the Interior, and modeled after Audubon’s annual reports begun in 2004. For example, in 2009, CBC analyses revealed the dramatic impact climate change is already having on birds across the continent.”

There will be count circles (15-mile diameter areas) organized that include many of the units in the National Park System. Contact your local Audubon chapter to find out how you can help. A few parks have announced their count dates and encourage anyone and everyone to join them. (Don’t worry if you’re a novice birder. Experienced birders and ornithologists are paired with less experienced counters.)

At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Christmas count is the unofficial launch of the winter season.

“The bird count is enjoyable for those new to birding as well as experienced birders,” says Superintendant Valerie Naylor. “Everyone is encouraged to participate. Beginners can learn from experienced birders and those keeping annual bird checklists can add onto them. This is a fun event, and we hope many people will join us to kick off the winter season in the park.”

The Medora Area Count will take place on Sunday, December 18. Volunteers wishing to take part should meet at the South Unit Visitor Center at 8:00 a.m. MST. Any participants arriving later in the day should stop by the South Unit Visitor Center for guidance.

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The Downy Woodpecker could show up on a CBC in almost any park in the country. Kirby Adams photo.

The North Unit Count will be held on Monday, December 19. Volunteers should meet at the North Unit Visitor Center at 9:00 a.m. CST. Those wishing to volunteer for the North Unit Count should call Superintendent Valerie Naylor at 701-623-4730 x3409 in advance.

The South Unit visitor’s center will provide warm drinks on the house, but birding North Dakota in December may still not be your thing. So, how about North Carolina? The CBC will be conducted in various parts of Cape Hatteras National Seashore on December 27th and 28th.

The dates for Cape Lookout National Seashore have yet to be determined. For more information, contact Audubon North Carolina’s Communications Director Ida Phillips at iphillips@audubon.org or at 919-618-0631.

I’m hoping to join the CBC for my “home” national park, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. The Benzie Audubon Club is conducting that count on Sunday, December 18.

If you happen to live anywhere else, there’s a good chance there’s a CBC circle near you. Just contact your local or state Audubon Society chapter. And, by all means, have a Merry (and Birdy) Christmas!