Counting, it’s for the birds

So, if the early bird gets the worm, then the early birder must get . . . the count?
That’s right. The 103rd-annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for the Audubon Society has begun and getting that early worm were members of the Rainy River Field Naturalists.
On Sunday, more than a dozen local naturalists and volunteers got up at the crack of dawn, strapped on their binoculars, pulled their toques over their ears, and tracked down as many feathered friends as possible.
“It’s a poor day for this,” said Fort Frances resident Henry Miller. “[But] it’s not as bad as last year. You couldn’t bear to stand outside last year.”
The group ignored the cold temperatures and biting wind to do their part for the birds for the eighth year in a row.
From Dec. 14-Jan. 5, birders from all over the western hemisphere will be counting their wintering bird populations in an effort to add to the database housed on the Audubon Web site.
The information is downloaded by a local compiler for each of the 1,900 individual count circles around the world only days after the count.
These numbers will be used for research and recognizing trends, changes in range and environment, and even monitoring endangered species—or recognizing new ones to add to the list.
This year, numbers also will be used to help understand what effect the West Nile Virus had on a select number of species.
“While we hope to use [Christmas Bird Count] data to learn if there are regional declines in crows, ravens, magpies, jays, owls, eagles and other raptors, it is crucial that organizers and participants conduct their counts as usual,” Frank Gill, Audubon senior vice-president for science, said on the Web site.
“That way, their results from this year will be entirely comparable to those of the past century’s seasons,” he noted. “Our volunteers’ efforts are vital if we are to understand the effects of this deadly bird epidemic.”
Local teams fanned out to the countryside and on every urban street looking for birds. Tree tops, bird feeders in people’s yards, and even the dump were prime locations.
The search area was a circle 15 miles in diameter centered just north of Crozier. It encompassed areas north and south of Devlin, along the river, and Fort Frances itself.
The group counted 1,201 birds and 27 different species on the one day.
“That’s the lowest count ever,” said Ilka Milne, a Rainy River Field Naturalist member who compiled the data from Sunday’s count.
Still, she said the count was good considering very few predatory birds were spotted on that day, including hawks and owls.
“It was the most mallards ever,” she added.
Milne indicated that while they were missing some usual birds, some that were surprises because of their relative rarity in this are included the Red-Breasted Nuthatch, Purple and Red Pole Finch, Northern Shrike, Pileated Woodpecker, and Brownheaded Cowbirds.
But of importance were those birds considered targets for the West Nile Virus.
“It was our highest Magpie count,” Milne said. “Jays are average.”
One of the more interesting results was the relatively low count on ravens. In 1999, more than 850 ravens were spotted in the one-day count but this year the number was under 250.
That’s the third-lowest count ever and the third year in a row the number has declined, Milne said.
“We had a big count on crows this year,” she added, saying that when crow or raven numbers are up, the other usually sees a dip. More than 125 crows were counted this year.
“The contribution to the database is important,” Milne stressed. “Surveying the winter bird populations is important and the Audubon Society is good about sharing numbers for research.”
It will be months before anything can be taken from the numbers, especially concerning the West Nile Virus. But local birders have done their part—and there is something just as important as the data.
“Just getting a bunch of birders together is good,” Milne said. “It’ good for the club, it’s good for the birds.”
Some of the birders who came out were Grade 9 students Wyatt Hughes and Kevin Empey. They’re members of the local Junior Conservation Club and avid bird-watchers.
“I’ve been bird-watching since I was little, since I could walk,” said Hughes. And when living in the country, “bird-watching is just there, it’s just one of the things you do.”
As part of the conservation club, the two participate in garbage clean-ups, collecting aluminum cans, and building bird houses and feeders and then monitoring the birds.
They also get to do other fun activities, like survival training, camping trips, and archery.
Some 16 kids, aged eight-14, are in the club, which teaches them about looking after the community through conservation efforts while also learning about nature and wildlife, noted Miller, a retired teacher who oversees the group.
“It’s fun getting outside,” said Hughes of the bird counting. “And the time counts as our high school hours [of community service needed to graduate].”
The count is a tradition that started on Christmas Day, 1900 when a small group of 27 conservationists decided to initiate an alternative activity to the holiday practice of the “side hunt”—where teams competed in shooting the most birds and small animals.
Instead, they proposed counting the birds they saw and a tradition was born.
Today, this citizen-based conservation effort sees more than 55,000 volunteers from every Canadian province, all 50 States, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies, and the Pacific islands take part.