Christmas has come and gone, but New Years Eve isn’t the only big event to look forward to — there’s also the annual Christmas Bird Count. The international bird census has been running for over a century, and birders in Sitka have contributed their observations for the last few decades. The count is a crucial tool for understanding how our feathered friends are doing
The week before, Victoria Vosburg is doing a little pre-bird count spotting at Swan Lake.
Mostly we see mallard ducks — 65 of them, to be exact. But there’s also an American coot, and one greater white-fronted goose. Plus, two big swans are coming our way.
Soon, Jen Cedarleaf joins us. She and Vosburg have been organizing Sitka’s bird count for 13 years. Birding has a well-earned reputation as a quiet, peaceful activity. But, as we soon found out, it can be a duck-eat-duck world out there.
“They’re fighting…Holy crap, be nice!” Cedarleaf exclaimed. “Oh! Look at how mean he is! Do you see that one male? He’s just picking the s**t out of the other one.”
To be clear, the ducks aren’t technically eating each other, but one does have another pinned by the neck and is trashing him around pretty hard. As someone concerned with the welfare of all birds, Cedarleaf couldn’t sit on the sidelines for long, and goes to break up the fight.
A duck brawl is just one of many thrilling experiences that bird count participants could potentially witness when they take to the roads, trails, and waterways this coming Saturday to tally Sitka’s avian neighbors.
Sitka birders will be one small part of the 120th annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. The survey relies on tens of thousands of volunteers throughout North, Central, and South America as well as the Caribbean and several Pacific islands.
On the local level it’s fairly simple. After an orientation, volunteers are sent out to count each bird they see on a specific route. And given Sitka’s varied geography, each route is its own adventure.
“Some are short, some are long, some are on boats, some are hiking, some are probably more driving,” Vosburg explained.
For newcomers, there’s also the option to stake out a bird feeder, which is a more controlled environment with fewer species to differentiate.
Cedarleaf and Vosburg then compile all the information and send it to the Audobon Society, which will add it to its collection of 100-plus years of bird observations. From there, the data gets used for any number of scientific studies.
Gwen Baluss, president of the Juneau Audubon Society, says the power of all this information is that anyone can use it.
“But really what’s great about the data is that it is basically public,” she said. “So any researcher can take a look at it and run it through any analysis they would like to.”
Here in Southeast, she says the survey has been helpful in getting a sense of which bird species fly through during the winter time. The national Audubon Society has also used the data to better understand how climate change is impacting bird ranges and migration patterns.
Here in Sitka, Cedarlearf says they’re already seeing the impacts of climate change, as warm weather birds are sticking around longer and longer.
“Somebody saw a Hermit Thrush just the other day and those guys should have been long gone by now,” she said.
While the count has become a crucial tool for conservationists, Vosburg explains it has roots in a darker pastime — the so called Christmas “side hunts” of the 1800s.
“On Christmas Day you would choose a side, or a team, and you would go kill as many things as you could,” Vosburg said. “And whoever killed the most things won.”
Ornithologist Frank Chapman was one of many people alarmed by this practice, and in the year 1900 he organized the first Christmas bird count, encouraging people to document the species they encountered rather than shooting them.
120 years later, Chapman’s alternative Christmas activity has morphed into an international avian enumeration effort of epic proportions — In the 2017-2018 census, volunteer observers counted 59,242,067 individual birds.
And even though the count has long shed its association with hunting, Vosburg says it hasn’t completely lost its competitive spirit.
“And I’d stay it’s still somewhat competitive,” she said. “It’s scientific, but we do sometimes look at the other communities in Southeast Alaska to see, did we get more species than them? That sort of thing.”
The biggest competition? Ketchikan. Cedarleaf says they’ve got some really good birders down there.
Editors Note: The Sitka bird count is Saturday, December 28th. Anyone interested in participating may attend a planning meeting December 26th, 6-8pm at the Raptor Center.