Beginning and advanced
birders contribute to science while getting fresh winter air
Christmas season lasts from December 14 through January 5. That’s when Christmas Bird Counts (CBC)
are held throughout the Chicago region, the state,
the nation and many other parts of the world. Dressed in layers to keep warm,
hundreds of Chicago area residents enjoy this special time of year. They get
out in the woods, fields and along the lakefront to share a love for the
outdoors and to contribute to science.
Those that have led and
participated in Christmas Bird Counts over the years say it’s also the perfect
chance for beginning birdwatchers to get their feet wet or get good use out of
their snow boots to learn about the feathered creatures of winter.
In the Chicago region,
beginning birders can be overwhelmed by the diversity of birds in May and
September, says Josh Engel, a science affiliate at The Field Museum
who has been attending
Christmas Bird Counts since he was a teenager and owns Red Hill Birding
. But in winter, during
Christmas Bird Counts there are fewer bird species present, and that gives them
a chance to learn at a slower pace, Engel explains. “Most all Christmas Bird
Counts welcome new birders,” Engel says. “Compilers of the count can put a
beginning birder in touch with someone they can join in their area.”
He typically does the
Chicago lakefront count, always held on Christmas Day, the Evanston North Shore
bird count, held sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and another in
southwest Wisconsin. A Waukegan Christmas Bird Count is always held on January
1. Other counts in the region are set annually on select days during the
Christmas Bird Count period.
being out on Christmas Day on the Chicago lakefront,” Engel says. “It’s very
quiet and there are very few people.” Joining others, he counts ducks and gulls
on the lake, as well as inland birds such as black-capped chickadees and
dark-eyed juncos, both commonly seen on Christmas Bird Counts. The chickadee is
a year-round bird in the region; juncos spend winters here.
Christmas Bird Count may be the longest-running citizen science survey in the
world. It began 120 years ago when Frank Chapman, a scientist and NationalAudubon Society
member, suggested counting birds during the holidays
instead of hunting them, which was then the norm. Chapman began the first
Christmas Bird Count on December 25, 1900.
Over the years,
15-mile-wide count circles have been set up in states and countries. Volunteers
count every bird they hear or see within 24 hours in their assigned circle.
They record data and give it to compilers that send it to the National Audubon
Society. When combined with other surveys, the count provides a picture of how
the continent’s bird populations have changed in time. Each person, beginner or
advanced birder alike, that counts contributes to that data set.
Itani began watching birds in her Chicago backyard several years ago. On
Christmas Day 2016, she joined Engel and other experienced birders along the
lakefront in Evanston for her first Christmas Bird Count. “While we were
waiting for others to arrive, a gull flew by overhead and Josh immediately
identified it as a herring gull,” Itani says. “I was bewildered he could do it
from such a distance.” She asked him how he knew what it was, and Engel
explained the two most common gulls in winter in the area are ring-billed gulls
and herring gulls, and the larger ones are herring gulls.
“Christmas Bird Counts can
be very eye-opening to beginning birders,” Engel says. They learn that more
than one species of gulls exists, that they’re not all just seagulls, and that
many kinds of ducks besides mallards, such as mergansers, can be found in open
Jeff Aufmann, a Cary
resident who compiles the McHenry County Christmas Bird Count, says birders can
see robins and bluebirds during the count. “People often don’t believe you,” he
says. But those visiting trees and shrubs with lots of berries often find these
birds on Christmas Bird Counts,” he says.
Engel notes, “We always have
some crazy bird show up.” Once while counting birds on Navy Pier in Chicago, he
noticed some sparrows eating crumbs. “Strutting by the sparrows was an
ovenbird,” Engel recalls. “That time of year, an ovenbird should be in Belize
or Costa Rica. They winter in a tropical environment. They’re insectivores,
they eat exclusively insects.”
Those that don’t known an
ovenbird from a sparrow can help on bird counts by volunteering to serve as a
scribe, says Aufmann. “A lot of people are shy to sign up,” he says. “But they
don’t have to know all the birds. If they want to learn, they can just tag
along and take notes.”
though some hardcore birders like Aufmann get up before dawn to search for owls
and continue through the whole day counting birds until dark, it doesn’t have
to be as rigorous as that. “You can just cruise through neighborhoods and see
what’s at people’s bird feeders. You don’t have to go out the whole day if you
don’t want,” he says.
says those that count birds are documenting rises and declines in certain
species. “Overall, the trend is showing birds are wintering farther and farther
north all the time,” he says. “It’s a sign of a warming climate, and the
long-term data gathered on the Christmas Bird Counts can document that.”
Christmas Bird Counts also
have documented the fall and subsequent rise in population of bald eagles,
which were once on the federally endangered species list. The banning of DDT
helped the eagles and populations of other birds of prey bounce back.
After the count, birders
meet at homes or restaurants to reveal what they documented. “We have fun
talking about what we saw, having some snacks and a couple of beers,” Aufmann
Engel says he enjoys
birding and chatting with people he hasn’t seen since the last CBC, as well as
meeting new birders. “The CBC is a great chance to meet other like-minded
people and to enjoy a wonderful wintertime tradition,” he says. “It’s a great
chance to force yourself to get outside. I never regret it, no matter how cold
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on
science, health and nature. She also writes nature, health and environment
stories for national and regional publications.
Image by Sheryl DeVore
Join a Christmas Bird Count
Christmas Bird Counts are
scheduled from December 14 through January 5, 2020, in the Chicago region. For
a list of counts and contact information, visit IllinoisBirds.org/new-christmas-bird-count-cbc-map.
are some tips to enjoy the count:
- Dress in layers for warmth.
- Wear sturdy boots.
- Bring water and snacks.
- Be on time and at the designated place assigned by the compiler.
- Bring a birding book, notebook and pen.
- Don’t be afraid to ask
questions or point out a bird for identification.