Earth Matters: Audubon Christmas bird count

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The Audubon Christmas Bird Count was started as an antidote to traditional Christmas bird hunts and is the longest-running citizen science survey in the world.

This year marks the 121st Count. The Audubon Christmas Bird Count utilizes the power of volunteers to track the health of bird populations at a scale that scientists could never accomplish alone. Data compiled will record every individual bird and bird species seen in a specified area, contributing to a vast community science network that continues a tradition stretching back 120 years.

Last year the Count mobilized nearly 80,000 volunteer bird counters in more than 2,600 locations across the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Due to COVID, the National Audubon Society has made the count optional this year and put together guidelines for maintaining personal safety during the count, so participant numbers may be lower, but enthusiasm among birders is not.

The count contributes critically important data to scientists. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Surveys, Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

The long-term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well. In 2019, Science published a study using decades of Audubon Christmas Bird Count data to describe a grim picture: a steady decline of nearly 3 billion North American birds since 1970, primarily as a result of human activities.

Christmas Bird Count data have been used in more than 300 peer-reviewed articles. The count has become an important tool in other countries as well; in Colombia, the Audubon Count is a crucially important monitoring system of biodiversity in the country.

Long Island hosts eleven of the 15-mile diameter count circles from the eastern forks to Queens and Brooklyn. Each circle has one or more compilers who select the date from the three-week count period, organize the volunteers and compile and enter the data into Audubon’s system.

Today it’s done online, much easier than when it involved adding up sheets of paper lists. Each circle is broken out into areas or sectors with dedicated individuals or teams trying to locate as many birds as possible.

I am a compiler for the Northern Nassau count circle, along with three co-compilers. This year’s count will be Saturday, Dec. 19. The Northern Nassau Circle extends from the western edge of Manhasset Bay east to Caumsett State Park, and south to Westbury, and is co-sponsored by the North Shore and Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Societies.

Typically, between 100-110 species of birds will be identified during the 24-hour count in our area. Some counters will go out as early as 4 a.m. to track down Eastern Screech and Great Horned Owls.

Generally, the most abundant species are Canada Geese (no surprise) with over 10,000 counted. If the rafts of ducks that winter off the north shore arrive in time, then Greater Scaup will have high numbers.

Coming in next are usually over 3000 European Starlings. Counted in numbers over 1000 are Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls, Mallards, and American Black Ducks.

The most undercounted species are feeder birds and the very common House Sparrow. Volunteers need not venture beyond the comfort of their home as feeder counts are welcome.

This year, due to COVID, we will not have an in-person compilation and dinner but will have a zoom to discuss the highlights of the day. We are asking for lists to be submitted via ebird, a free app created by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but emailed lists will also be accepted.

If you feel confident in your ability to accurately identify your feeder birds and would like to participate, go to https://www.audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count . Click on the map and zoom into Long Island. Click on the bird in the center of the circle and contact information will come up. Information can also be found at northshoreaudubon.org .

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