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Biodiversity: Annual Christmas bird count under way

Cardinal.

Citizen science project helps track bird populations

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — The annual Christmas bird count — the longest running citizen science project on record — is under way, and in early reports from Colorado, observers are seeing plenty of diversity but lower numbers than in some past years. To find out how to get involved in your area, visit this Audubon Society web page.

“We documented 127 species at Pueblo Reservoir, which is two short of the all time record.  The total number of birds, however, was down,” said Leon Bright, membership coordinator for the Arkansas Valley Audubon Society. Bright said the same trend was observed in the Wet Mountain Valley count near Westcliffe.  “The lower number of birds might be related to the drought conditions,” he said.

“The information gathered by scientists and volunteers is invaluable to determining long-term trends in bird populations,” said John Koshak, a watchable wildlife specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.”Birds are sensitive to changes in the environment. By studying trends, we can determine which bird species are declining and which ones are on the increase.”

This year’s Christmas bird count runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5. During the count, birders follow specific routes around designated 15-mile-wide circles that are counted year after year. Volunteers organize birders into groups whose aim is to identify and tally every bird in their part of the circle.

The goal is to get an annual census of which birds – and how many of each species – are using a particular habitat.  By repeating the process year after year, wildlife managers are able to document and analyze long term trends in species abundance and health.

According to the Audubon Society, the Christmas Bird Count is a family tradition for their members.  On Christmas Day 1900, the first Christmas Bird Count was done as an alternative to what was known as a “side hunt.”

According to the Audubon Society’s web page, a “side hunt,” was when people formed teams to see which team could shoot the largest bag of feathered and furred wildlife.  Recognizing that this kind of intense hunting might have a serious impact on wildlife populations, the national association of the Audubon Society began organizing volunteers to count birds on Christmas Day rather than shoot them.

By tradition, the modern Christmas count becomes a friendly competition, as groups vie with each other and with history to find more species than their peers did. After a day in the field, often in raw conditions, birders gather to compile their totals and recount the best sightings of the day.

Bright cites two reasons people participate in the Christmas Bird Count. “They love birds and want to help out as citizen scientists. And they love the camaraderie of being with others.”

The Christmas Count is a great way for new and novice birders to learn about bird habits and bird identification skills from experienced birders.  Old hands derive satisfaction from knowing that their observations are part of an enormous body of scientific data that’s important to bird conservation in Colorado and beyond.

For many birders, the highlight of the day will be spotting a species they have never seen and adding it to their life list. Others will marvel to the unpredictable and sometimes dramatic interactions between species like raptors and their prey. A lucky few may see a unique bird or a species never before recorded in their circle.

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