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Down for the Count 

Christmas birding with the Audubon Society

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Sue Leskiw

Normal people look forward to the holidays as a time to indulge in creature comforts that take a back seat the rest of the year. Birders, seldom mistaken for normal people, anticipate the three weeks around Christmas and New Year's as an endurance test of predawn-to-dusk forays into the outdoors, whatever the weather, in search of their quarry. This annual bout of masochism is known as the Christmas Bird Count.

While most counters do it for fun, the Christmas count is a great example of citizen science. Begun in 1900 to counter a longstanding Christmas tradition called the "side hunt," in which people competed to kill the most birds, it now stands as the longest-running wildlife census in existence. According to the website of the Audubon Society, which runs the count, 27 people took part in 25 counts in the U.S. and Canada that first year; last winter, 71,531 counters participated in 2,369 counts from Alaska to Antarctica.

How does it work? Counts take place in 15-mile-diameter circles scattered across the landscape. Each count is conducted on one day during the count period and is presided over by a "compiler" (such as yours truly) who handles the logistics and is the liaison with the National Audubon Society. Count circles are typically divided into sections, each covered by a team that may have a designated leader.

The procedure is pretty simple: Identify and count all the birds you find. Putting that into practice, of course, is seldom straightforward. The plethora of bird identification guides on the market is testament to the challenges of bird identification. One of the most frequent questions I'm asked by non-birders is, "How do you know which ones you've already counted?" Well, you make your best guess, and with experience your guesses get better. The same goes for counting huge numbers of birds, as often occur in our area.

We don't kid ourselves that we aren't making mistakes or that we're counting every bird out there, which isn't even remotely possible. What we're doing is estimating the number of birds we see (or hear) to arrive at an index of what's around; this index then allows scientists to track changes over time. Christmas Bird Count data have shown pronounced northward shifts in many species' winter distributions in response to global warming.

A typical count day begins in the wee hours in search of owls. "Owling" is the domain of the truly hardcore Christmas counter, and it can be the most challenging part of the day, since it's dark and cold. But sighting those mysterious creatures can be memorable. My first encounter with a northern saw-whet owl was getting brushed on the ear by one during a Christmas count; I never saw it and it was years more before I actually saw one.

Most people join their count teams around daybreak, and from then on it can be nonstop birding for the next nine hours. Often groups working within an area meet up midday to share results and plan the afternoon's effort over lunch. Are any expected species still missing? Has anyone found an unexpected bird that needs confirmation? Are there any locations that need to be revisited because the light or the tide will change? A successful Christmas count is as much about strategy as about identification skill or endurance.

As daylight wanes, counters make their way to a "compilation dinner" in the banquet room of a local restaurant, where teams compile and share their results. There's plenty of competition among teams and counts for the most and best species. The event ends with a preliminary pronouncement of the total number of species, and the counters head home to recover — exhausted and weather-beaten but with a meaningful day's work behind them.

If this brand of holiday madness appeals to you but you're afraid you don't have the skills, relax. Birders tend to be a welcoming crowd and newcomers are encouraged to participate even if they have little or no experience. The only real requirements are enthusiasm and stamina. Beginners are paired with veterans and may be entrusted with driving or data recording. Counts even include counters who stay home and document the birds at their feeders. Whatever your role, you'll be joining a growing cadre of citizen scientists. You might just have a brush with Christmas Count madness — or even an owl.

Find out more

To participate locally, contact the following:

• Arcata, Eureka and McKinleyville, Dec. 14

Daryl Coldren, 916-384-8089 or [email protected]

• Willow Creek, Dec. 21 (tentative)

Gary Lester, 707-839-3373 or [email protected]

• Centerville Beach to King Salmon, Ferndale and

Fortuna, Dec. 29

Gary Lester (see above)

• Tall Trees, Big Lagoon Park and Orick, Jan. 2

Ken Burton, 707-499-1146 or [email protected]

There will be an optional pre-count meeting to review birds and procedures at the Humboldt County Office of Education at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 13.

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