Earlier this month, Sitkans spread out across land and sea to take part in an annual holiday tradition: the Christmas Bird Count.
The count, organized by the Audubon Society, doesn’t actually take place on Christmas – this year’s count in Sitka was on January 4th – but it once did.
“It started on Christmas over a hundred years ago,” said veterinarian Vicki Vosburg, of the Sitka Raptor Center. “The first count was in 1900, and it was in response to the tradition of everyone going out and hunting or killing birds on Christmas Day.”
The first organizers decided to challenge that tradition and go out counting birds instead of hunting them. Some 27 observers took part, in 25 locations across the U.S. and Canada. This year, between December 14 and January 5, over 63,000 people were expected to join the count at 2,200 locations across North and South America.
The Sitka count started in the winter of 1974-75, and has continued almost every year since. This year, over 40 people took part, and the counters came up with some big numbers.
Vosburg has managed the Sitka count for the past several years, along with Jen Cedarleaf, also of the Sitka Raptor Center.
“The biggest one for me, I think was the Black Oystercatchers,” Cedarleaf said. “We saw 49 Black Oystercatchers and that’s a new high. Our high before that was 17. So that’s a really cool thing to see this time of year.”
“And then of course the Eurasian Collared Dove,” Cedarleaf said. “I don’t think we got a full count of the Eurasian Collared Doves. We only got 19, and I have a suspicion there’s a lot more of them in this community than 19.”
More on the Eurasian Collared Dove in a moment.
Now in its 114th year, the bird count is one of the longest-running wildlife studies in the world, and the data collected by all those citizen-scientists is being put to some decidedly modern uses. Scientists have used the counts to track changes in bird populations and territories – especially as birds shift their ranges in response to climate change.
One prime example? Those Eurasian Collared Doves.
“As our climate changes we’re seeing birds move into areas that they weren’t in before, and a perfect example in Sitka is the Eurasian Collared Dove,” Vosburg said. “Jen and I are actually going to have to rewrite our checklist because the Eurasian Collared Dove isn’t on it. And clearly it is now a resident of Sitka.”
“A breeding resident,” Cedarleaf said.
Birding enthusiasts who missed the Christmas Bird Count will have a chance to take part in another count soon – the Great Backyard Bird Count, which takes place in February.