'Tis the Season For Counting Birds

Dec 18, 2012

How many birds do you see in a given day? How many sparrows or hawks or owls do you think live in your neighborhood? Jennifer Pemberton spent an entire day with Logan's Bridgerland Audubon Society compiling their annual bird census.

Between now and January 5, people all over the country are counting the birds in their neighborhoods. It’s called the Christmas Bird Count, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, and it’s citizen science as it’s best. A massive volunteer effort to try and take a census of the nation’s bird populations. Over the weekend, about 60 participants with binoculars set out to find out how many birds there are on a given day in December in the count circle in Cache Valley.

It starts at 5:00 a.m. with owling…that’s right, looking for owls has its own verb. It’s 2 hours before sunrise, so looking isn’t exactly what’s happening here. Members of the Bridgerland Audubon Society are listening for owls. They are standing in a circle, playing a recording of a western screech owl and waiting for a response: “Right there…do you see it? It’s just a ball. One Western Screech Owl.”

It can take hours to just find one owl. But things speed up a bit when dawn breaks. With the sunrise out come the  binoculars and the counters start driving. They count hawks sitting on fence posts.
They stroll through marshes and golf courses and cemeteries and count everything that moves – everything with wings that is. Most birds in daylight need to be seen to be counted but there are a few elusive enough birds with distinct enough calls, like this Virginia Rail, that can be counted if only heard.

In the afternoon someone has the somewhat unpleasant task of counting ducks at the sewage lagoons. Today that someone is Bryan Dixon, the organizer – or compiler in official terms -- for Logan’s Christmas Bird Count. It seems like counting grains of sand, but there is some method to the madness.

“When we look north the sun’s at our back and the colors on these ducks is really really nice. So, there’s two ways to do this. Both of them are terrible. One way is to move your scope and then count everything in the field and then move your scope and count everything in the field and move your scope again… The other way is to say ‘I’m going to count gadwalls.’ And course through all the birds on the pond and count all the gadwalls, and then come back and count all the mallards….230…I’m counting by 10s here…531 gadwalls.”

Credit Jennifer Pemberton

At another waste-treatment area, a father-and-son-team, Kurt and Dave, are employing the other technique: the count everything in your field of vision, move the scope over a few millimeters, count everything in your field of vision and repeat.

“Okay, I’ve got 60 coots, 8 widgeon, and 40 gadwalls. Now I’m shifting – oh, there went a bufflehead through my screen…If you just look at the coots right here you have 100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 800, 900…there’s 1,000 coots basically.”

The clipboards fill up quickly with tallies and the counters stay out until nightfall, looking for a few species – like the short-eared owl – that will appear around dusk. At the compiling potluck in the evening, everyone brings back their results. Bryan Dixon explains how the reporting works:

“The people bring back two forms. One form is the list of species and the number of each species that they recorded that day. The other form is called the Party Effort Form. Because we use this data for scientific research and if we see 20,000 birds or 5,000 birds it’s really helpful to know two things: one is the level of effort we put into it, so we record number of hours on foot, or miles on foot, hours in car, and the number of people, the number of eyeballs we have out there.”

The birders eat dinner and add up all the bird counts from their sector and get ready to count off for the grand finale, calling out their results species by species.

“Pied-billed grebe, area one…4…1…0…0…5…0…0…0…0… for a total of 10. That’s a record count for pied-billed grebe.”

Some species number in the tens of thousands and some in the single digits. It only takes one, though, for a species to be represented in the area. Like the rare Lewis’ woodpecker, spotted in Cache Valley this year for the very first time.

“So how many species have we got? It’s a 102 with that Lewis woodpecker. So we broke 100. So, our total is 102 and our record number we’ve ever found was 103 species. So, I’d say it was a successful count. Thank you all very very much.”

The Bridgerland Audubon Society’s numbers will get reported to the national database. There are Christmas Bird Counts in many regions throughout Utah this season. You don’t have to be an expert to count birds. Anyone can learn that a duck isn’t just a duck with a little training.

Click for more information about the Christmas Bird Count.

Sign up for a count.