Audubon’s 112th Annual Christmas Bird Count – an interview with Scott Huber, Altacal Audubon

Winter. What catches our eyes, ears and interests in the garden this time of year is distinctive. For me, texture, sound, form and movement are what draw me now.

In many cases, it’s not plants that provide this interest for me as I move about my winter gardening tasks – it’s the birds that accompany me. Like me, they seem to move slowly on these cold mornings; like me, they seem to be recharged and energetic with the late morning’s warming sun. They hunt for food and twitter, sing, scratch, boss each other, and bustle about in the bare limbs of the blue oaks, in the soft, rich duff beneath my ceanothus and mahonia. I will sometimes find that I am fully paused in my work – at my rake in the garden, even sitting at my desk and gazing out the window. I am just watching them – fully immersed in their textures, sounds, forms and movements. Their brief flashes of color – their communal relations and interplay. They are as much a part of my garden and my enjoyment of it as my seeds, my flowers, my seasonal edibles. Every now and then – especially this time of year, I commit myself to learning more about these garden companions. I try to keep my fresh water dishes cleaned and full, I make sure to leave seed heads and garden detritus for them to forage or rest in. I try to learn their songs, their identifying features and their names. Each year I make a little more progress. Just like knowing the name of a plant I enjoy deepens my relationship to that plant, knowing the name of some of the birds I enjoy, I think improves my awareness of and engagement with these garden partners.

As I work to learn more, I often turn to the Audubon Society as an excellent resource. To become more knowledgeable about the birds in your area, the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is a great winter activity to get anyone started on basic bird identification. This week on In a North State Garden, Scott Huber, former president and longtime active member of Altacal Audubon, the Chico and Oroville area chapter of the Audubon Society, talks to us about this 112 year old annual tradition in ornithology – the study of birds. The Education and Research Coordinator for Ecological Reserves at CSU, Chico and an avid birder, Scott is an annual participant in the Christmas Bird Count. With the understanding that many gardeners particularly enjoy their garden’s birdlife in the winter months, Scott discusses how we gardeners might participate or make use of the count’s practices to the benefit of our own backyard wildlife.

Some history on the count, from the Audubon Society website:

“The Audubon Society was founded in the northeast between 1896 and 1905 with a mission to support bird life and conservation. Prior to the turn of the century, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the Christmas “Side Hunt”: They would choose sides and go afield with their guns; whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.

Conservation was in its beginning stages around the turn of the 20th century, and many observers and scientists were becoming concerned about declining bird populations. Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, ornithologist Frank Chapman, an early officer in the then budding Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition-a “Christmas Bird Census”-that would count birds in the holidays rather than hunt them.

So began the Christmas Bird Count. Thanks to the inspiration of Frank M. Chapman and the enthusiasm of twenty-seven dedicated birders, twenty-five Christmas Bird Counts were held that day. The locations ranged from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, California with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied a total of 90 species on all the counts combined.”

Scott shared that more than 50,000 observers nation-wide participate each year in this all-day census of early-winter bird populations. The results are compiled into the longest-running database in ornithology, representing over a century of unbroken data on trends of early-winter bird populations across the Americas.

For this week’s interview, I asked Scott a few questions about the Christmas Bird Count:

Q: Will you please describe the Christmas Bird Count and how it works:

· A fifteen mile diameter ‘count circle’ is established
· Circle is divided up into zones
· Participants are assigned a zone (multiple participants to a zone if enough participants).\
· Examples of zones include: upper park, lower park, Chico cemetery, Chico airport, CSU Chico campus, etc.
· Participants cover the zone as thoroughly as possible between 7:30 am – 4:30 pm
· A tally sheet is provided for each zone. The tally sheet includes a list of all species found in the area in winter.
· Participants count each individual bird of each species encountered during the day. Flocks of birds are estimated (sometimes flocks of 1000 or more for wintering waterfowl, starlings and blackbird species)
· Unidentified bird are counted as ‘species’ if genus or family is known (for example if a blackbird is seen but not narrowed to species it is counted under ‘blackbird species)
· Novice counters are teamed up with experienced counter – new counters are encouraged!
· Rare, unusual or out of season birds are written in and documented.
· At the end of the day participants meet for a ‘compilation dinner’ where the results from all of the zones are added together to get count totals for each species, unusually large number of a species or rare species are the highlight.

Q: What does this data tell bird researchers?

Scott: Though methods are variable and therefore not necessarily scientifically reliable, overall numbers can suggest trends in bird populations – including increases or decreases in the abundance of a certain species, increases or decreases in the food or prey base of a certain species that only visits in years in which their food base is present in large amounts (for instance varied thrushes may show up in large numbers in years when certain berries are abundant). A single years increase or decrease may not be significant as the species may just be hanging out in greater numbers at a slightly higher elevation (such as phainopepla, evening grosbeak, purple finch) or may all be congregated at a single location (such as cranes, swans, geese). Different counters may use different counting methods or may have a subconscious ‘bias’ for hearing or seeing certain species over others, or may have a hearing problem that doesn’t allow them to detect birds with higher frequency songs (such as brown creeper or golden crowned kinglet. Successive years of increase or decrease likely reflect a significant change in a species overall abundance, breeding success or migration pattern. Examples of dramatic increases or decreases of species noted in Christmas bird count data (and subsequently proven to be indicative of a population change) include large increases in double-crested cormorants and white-faced ibis’ which have been attributed to changes in rice crop management. Dramatic decreases have included loggerhead shrike and burrowing owl, both grassland species threatened by development and conversion of native grasslands. Scientists definitely watch Christmas bird count data to detect trends which can then be scientifically studied.

Q: How might we gardeners participate or make use of the count’s practices to the benefit of our backyard wildlife?

Scott: Gardeners can learn what sort of native (and non-native) plants; trees and shrubs are used by which wintering birds. For instance, to attract spotted towhees, fox sparrows and hermit thrushes you’d wants fairly dense area of shrubs, preferably with berries. Manzanita blossoms (which bloom in winter) are favorites or purple finches and Anna’s hummingbird. The mistletoe in your oak trees is used by western bluebirds and phainopepla. The pistache trees found all over Chico are magnets for yellow-rumped warblers. Toyon and dogwood, as well as pyracantha attract all kinds of birds, especially robins and flickers.

Gardeners would benefit from joining our count to become more familiar with the species that may well end up at their feeders or in their yards. There is also a GREAT BACKYARD BIRDCOUNT in February where participants can count birds right in their own yards.

Christmas Bird Counts in the North State:

Several Audubon chapters are active in the North State and will be participating in the CBC. For more info visit the Altacal Audubon or Wintu Audubon websites.

December 17th – Chico Christmas Bird Count
Leader is Mary Muchowski: 530-228-0625 or mmuchowski@earthlink.net All levels of birders are welcome. Beginners will be paired up with experienced birders. Bring warm clothes, hiking shoes, lunch, bird books and binoculars. You will be assigned an area and spend the day counting birds in this area. If anyone wants to do a halfday, contact Mary ahead of time. Compilation to be arranged. Meet at 7:30 am, Chico Creek Nature Center, 1968 East 8th Street, Chico.

December 17th @ 7:00 am – Fall River Christmas Bird Count
Participants will meet at the Fall River Hotel in Fall River Mills for a family-style breakfast and assignments. From Redding, take Hwy. 299E for approximately 75 miles. After crossing the Fall River, take the second right and look for the hotel on the right. Every year, some birders spend the night at this quaint hotel (Phone: 530-336-5550) and avoid the early morning drive. Eastern Shasta County birders are especially invited to participate. After the count, dinner and compilation will be in Redding at a location to be announced. RSVP to Bob Yutzy (boby@c-zone.net) so the hotel can be given the number they will be serving for breakfast.

Contact Karen Scheuermann at 530-347-1687, Assemble at the Holiday Market, 460 Antelope Blvd, Red Bluff, for assignments. Dinner and compilation will be announced there.

December 20th @ 7:00 am – Anderson Christmas Bird Count
This will be the fourth year for this very successful count that features much public land with ample opportunities for walking. Meet at the amphitheatre parking lot in Anderson River Park for assignments and location of the dinner and compilation. Contact Rob Santry (rsantry@snowcrest.net) for further information.

December 27th @ 7:30 am – Redding Christmas Bird Count
We have compiled 34 years of continuous records from this grand daddy of the local counts which began in 1976 in its current location. Centered near Keswick Dam it stretches from Whiskeytown Lake in the West to Shasta College in the East, and from Shasta Dam in the North to Clear Creek in the South. Assignments will be given in front of the main entrance to the Redding Convention Center. We will assemble at dusk at a local restaurant (location to be announced). For further information contact Bill Oliver at 530-941-7741 or wwoliver9@gmail.com.

Trip Leader: Gaylord Grams, 530-533-1624 or gg2canoe@yahoo.com.

For people interested in learning more about the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count – on Sunday December 11th at Gateway Science Museum in Chico, Scott will be leading a Bird Count Warm up Exercise to introduce museum visitors to what to look for when identifying birds, and what birds you might expect to see in our area in winter. He will also take the group on a mini-count around the museum. The Warm-Up Exercise activity is free with the price of museum admission. On the 17th, Scott will be leading a section of the Chico Christmas Bird Count at 12 noon beginning from Gateway Science Museum.

For More Bird Learning and Fun:

Butte County is celebrating its 13th annual Snowgoose Festival of the Pacific Flyway January 26 – 29th.
Greg Miller, famed birder featured in the 2004 book, The Big Year by Mark Obmascik, will be the Keynote Speaker at the Gathering of Wings banquet on January 28th. The festival will feature over 65 fieldtrips, workshops and presentations, along with lots of free activities and events for youth and families… something for everyone! The Art Reception and Exhibit of the Pacific Flyway will be at a new downtown location… the Chico Art Center. The Chico Museum’s exhibit “Amazing Grains: The Story of Rice and Beyond,” will be a show-stoppper. Registration opens in December. For more info: http://www.snowgoosefestival.org/

Feb. 17-20, 2012 take part in the 15th annual Great Backyard Bird Count The Great Backyard Bird Count is an annual four-day event that engages bird watchers of all ages in counting birds to create a real-time snapshot of where the birds are across the continent. Anyone can participate, from beginning bird watchers to experts. It takes as little as 15 minutes on one day, or you can count for as long as you like each day of the event. It’s free, fun, and easy—and it helps the birds. A joint initiative of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada.

A few good bird identification books for our area include – and are available in-stock or by order at Lyon Books in Chico, or an independent bookstore in your area:

“The Birds of Bidwell Park”, by Roger Lederer, PhD. Illustrated by Carol Burr.

“The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America”

“The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of North America”

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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