The Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC), an annual event is celebrating its 117th anniversary this December. It is the longest-running wildlife census in the world. Taking place each year in early winter over a three-week period between December 14th and January 5th, counts occur across the Americas with more than 72,000 participants across more than 2,400 count areas. Gulf coast birders are engaged each year. The greatest number of bird species ever reported by any U.S. location in a single count is 250, observed in 2005 during the Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh count circle around Matagorda and Palacios, Texas.
In fact, Gulf Coast state counts are frequently record-setters for the highest number of species counted and for the highest number of individual birds of a particular species counted (such as yellow-rumped warblers). Our milder weather and the natural biodiversity of habitats along the Gulf mean plenty of bird diversity as well.
“There are many ways to go birding, but the Christmas Bird Count is special for several reasons that appeal to birders. It has a long history that’s rooted in American conservation, so there’s a strong feeling of tradition. In much of the country the conditions are pretty rough, with snow cover, ice and wind, so it appeals to people who like an outdoor challenge to find the few birds that stay for winter. But here on the Gulf Coast, instead, it’s usually nice weather, and we have the cornucopia of northern birds that spend the winter here, so that’s a special treat,” says Dr. Janet Wright, Jackson County, Mississippi’s Count Compiler. “Maybe the best feature is the chance to learn with experts who share all their knowledge about finding and identifying birds.”
Christmas Counts in the Gulf Coast are a unique way to get outside and appreciate the importance of our coastal habitats, without the bitterly cold and dangerous weather conditions that more northern birders contend with each winter. The geography of the Gulf lends itself to a diverse assemblage of birds- many that are only found regularly here in the winter months where they find food and shelter to make it through the cold season without migrating long distances to Central and South America. Rare and unusual species seem to be fairly normal occurrences for Gulf Coast counters, as birds are blown in from western states, moved by storms from the south, and even linger here rather than flying over the Gulf to more southerly winter homes.
Every year, Christmas Bird Count participants work to count every bird seen or heard in their assigned area. Each individual count takes place in a circle with a 15-mile radius and organized by a volunteer compiler that helps to collect and report all of the data back to the National Audubon Society. Data from volunteer participants in the Count is used to monitor trends in bird population health and can help to shape policy. Data from previous years’ counts are available online and accessible to anyone with a computer.
“There really isn’t any survey on a comparable scale to learn about the winter distribution and abundance of birds. For many CBC data have been used to detect long-term declines (or increases) in bird species. The numbers won’t tell us why these birds are in trouble, but they suggest hypotheses that can then be tested with more formal studies. Recently, CBC data are being used to show range shifts that are associated with climate change and even to predict what birds will do in the future. It takes many thousands of observations to get the big picture, and that’s what CBC gives,” said Wright.
Christmas Bird Counts are open to birders and bird enthusiasts of all levels. Less experienced birders are typically paired with those more experienced. And if your home is within a count circle, you don’t even have to leave your house to participate. Many counters rely on “feeder watchers” to count birds arriving at their backyard bird feeders throughout the day. The feeder watcher numbers are added to the count’s overall numbers.
Audubon and bird enthusiasts are active all year around. Local chapters host regular activities. If you are interested in participating in a Christmas Bird Count or accessing the data, check out the link to locate your count circle or contact your local CBC group: http://www.audubon.org/join-christmas-bird-count.
Contributed by Erin Parker, Programs Manager, Pascagoula River Audubon Center, Mississippi. You can learn more about their local program on their website.