2017-12-28 / Nature

Christmas Bird Count Contributes to Citizen Science

By Charles Avenengo


The white-winged dove was among the birds sighted during the Bird Count. 
(Photo by Bob Weaver) The white-winged dove was among the birds sighted during the Bird Count. (Photo by Bob Weaver) During the predawn hours on Saturday, Dec. 16, despite a fresh buffeting of two inches of snow and temperatures that felt like the upper teens, Norman Bird Sanctuary staffers Rachel Holbert and Mark Pagliarini entered the woods at the wildlife sanctuary to record owls.

At the same time, another group further north in Middletown, led by local birdwatching expert Jay Manning, was also listening for owls.

The same scenario was taking place in Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton and Westport, Massachusetts.

Why? They were the counting birds for the annual Newport County Westport Christmas Bird Count.

Christmas Bird Counts originated in 1900 when American Museum of Natural History Ornithologist Frank Chapman organized the event as an alternative to shooting the birds. In an era when conservation was in its infancy, Christmas “side hunts” were the norm. Sides were chosen and the team with the largest pile of birds at the end of the day was the winner.

Chapman’s suggestion of counting the birds instead of shooting them was attended by 27 observers. Since then, the effort has grown to approximately 2,500 counts, with 73,153 observers tallying over 56 million birds around the world last year.

Administered by the National Audubon Society, Christmas Bird Counts operate under a simple principle: on a single coordinated day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, counters tally all the birds within a 15-mile radius in a 24-hour period. The circles cannot overlap. In Rhode Island, there are four official counts in Newport County-Westport, South County, Napatree and Block Island. There is also an informal Jamestown count.

The local count dates back to 1922. With a radial center in Little Compton, the count extends west as far as Westport, Massachusetts. Totals from the count generally surpass 125 species of birds.

For my part, during the predawn freezing cold, I walked along the berm abutting the cattails marsh south of Nelson’s Pond in Middletown in an attempt to listen for rails. Like owls, rails are secretive, nocturnal birds. Actual sightings are rare. However, they can be coaxed into calling, and this is what I was hoping to hear. As far as a Christmas Count is concerned, hearing a call is as good as seeing the bird, and thus it is countable.

As the skies lightened, revealing a wall of snowy cumulus clouds retreating to the east, my efforts turned up empty-handed. The recent spate of cold had iced over the marsh, and rails were nowhere to be found.

The owlers had more luck, however. The Norman Bird Sanctuary yielded a pair of calling screech owls and a great horned owl. Likewise, Manning’s group produced two more great horned owls and three screech owls, and I was fortunate enough to see one on Paradise Avenue.

Just after 7 a.m., I rendezvoused with Newporter Matt Grimes, and we began to record the birds in our assigned area of the Sachuest sector of the count. Despite mostly frozen ponds, some leads were still open, and we counted waterfowl from various vantages around Easton’s and Green End ponds, and Tuckerman Avenue. But northwest winds made counting conditions brutal.

With slightly warming temperatures, by the time we arrived at Sachuest Point at 11 a.m., our efforts had yielded nearly 50 species. We were joined by another pair of counters, Paul L’Etoile and Barbara Sherman. While L’Etoile searched for birds from the outer loops of the refuge, the remaining three of us proceeded to beat the bushes of the refuge’s interior. During the Christmas Count, the refuge administrators allow counters to go off the trails. Following a maze of deer trails, we failed to flush either a short-eared or snowy owl, two of our targets. Conversely, we did observe Northern harriers, an American Pipit, a meadowlark and a pair of razorbills offshore.

Finally, with the sun waning and weary after 10 hours of counting birds in the cold, the Sachuest sector’s counters submitted the day’s tallies. Grimes and I had amassed 64 species. As representative of the Sachuest sector, L’Etoile then met with the other sector leaders at the Amicable Church in Tiverton to tabulate the numbers. The results will be relayed to the National Audubon Society.

While the hundreds of birds that were tallied by the handful of observers from the Sachuest sector represent a mere drop in the bucket to the millions of sightings that will ultimately be recorded, for those involved, each sighting, beginning with the predawn owls and continuing throughout the long day, comes with a story, and every story is etched into memory.

These memories, now entered into the record books of the 118th Christmas Count, come with the satisfaction and knowledge that in the holiday spirit of giving, each sighting has added to the arsenal of knowledge of citizen science.

Preliminary Results

Observers tallied a total of 138-species. Total number of birds tallied has not been released because there are other statewide tallies being conducted until Jan. 5.

Selected highlights include a white-winged dove at the Norman Bird Sanctuary- apparently the first record of this species in Rhode Island, seven bald eagles, 40 snow geese, one Eurasian wigeon, four Northern shoveler, 289 pintails, one ruffed grouse, one common gallinule, one black-headed gull, one dovekie, four snowy owls, one orange-crowned warbler, one clay-colored sparrow, two vesper sparrows, two Lapland longspurs, 21 Eastern meadowlarks, and two Baltimore orioles.

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