Birds - 'Tis the season for counting

By E. Vernon Laux - December 13, 2007

The holiday season is in full swing. All the familial, social, business, societal and religious obligations that accompany the season make it a hectic time for most. To add to the craziness of the season, many birders revel in the season by participating in one or more of the so-called Christmas Bird Counts, or CBC. A CBC is an event conducted during a 24-hour period from midnight to midnight, a single day, where many birders split into groups and attempt to count every bird in a 15-mile diameter circle.

The first half of the month, from a birding perspective, is generally dull as the majority of those interested in birds attend to holiday matters. Birders are saving their energies for the slew of annual CBCs that are conducted all over this continent. New England, particularly the Cape and Islands, is especially well represented.

One of the rewards for being outside and looking for birds at this season with the shortest days of the year are the amazing sunrises and sunsets. This sunset photo was taken last week from South Beach in Edgartown. Photo by E. Vernon Laux. Click photo for larger version.

The first counts of the season will be conducted this weekend with the Buzzard's Bay CBC and the Outer Cape CBC happening on the 15th and 16th, respectively. A CBC is an event that brings together all types of people, from all walks of life, for a day around the holidays. The purpose is to go out and find every bird of every species in a given area.

This sounds all well and good but is of course impossible to accomplish. How in the world can all the birds be found, identified and counted in an area this size? The answer is they can't be, but that is the stated goal, mission impossible, if you will.

It is a fun event. Some years are better than others. Given the vagaries of weather, participants and several hundred other variables, no two years are the same on any count. The results, when looked at over decades, provide valuable data and offer real insights into bird populations. Species that are increasing or declining, expanding their range or shrinking it, all become quickly apparent when looked at over decades.

What is really interesting is that no two CBCs are ever the same. The differences, from year to year, can be staggering. One of the obvious reasons for this is weather. It is intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer that the birds found on a count conducted during a blizzard with white-out conditions, or in thick fog, will be considerably different than those found on a warm, sunny day. A number of years ago the Vineyard CBC was conducted in a mini-hurricane. Precisely because of this some remarkably rare seabirds were found - northern fulmars, which would only occur under such harsh conditions. So while one wishes for good weather, like show business, no matter what the weather, the count must go on.

One of the highlights of the many CBCs is that it allows the opportunity for many birders to get out, on the same day, do the same thing, and explore areas and habitats that are not normally checked or birded. Invariably, the CBCs uncover and document many unusual birds. It adds some zest to counting the common birds by finding the occasional rarity.

A word of caution is necessary at this juncture about rare birds. In order to find and identify rare birds, one must be familiar with the common birds. As the names imply, common is expected, rare or unusual is not. So if one sees a bird that one is not familiar with, it should always be assumed to be the common bird, not the rare species, until one can conclusively prove otherwise.

CBCs are fraught with examples of inexperienced observers reporting the rarest birds. Unless seen by an experienced observer familiar with the species, photographed, videotaped or seen at a later time, these records invariably and quite properly get edited out of the final results. So if you spot something you are sure is something that is not supposed to be there, take its picture with a 300 millimeter lens, or better yet get all members of the party to see it, especially the birders with the most experience.

Many Islanders will participate in the counts, some for the first time. Coverage of an area by experienced observers is desirable and both the Island counts attract visiting expert birders to participate. The Islands are far and away the best places to find birds in New England at this time of year.

The weather is all important on CBC day. Because of the planning and logistics of getting everyone ready to go - assembling the troops, so to speak - there is no flexibility to change the date. The Vineyard CBC is on Saturday, Jan. 5, no matter what the weather is. A beautiful sunny day with little or no wind is what is hoped for. A roaring blizzard with gale force northeast winds is not. Last year, the weather was far from ideal, with winds howling from the southwest. Nonetheless, the CBC went on, and some most unusual birds were discovered.

Currently on the Island, specifically on the beaches of Chappaquiddick, there is a great show occurring. At least one large white owl, the far northern nesting snowy owl, has been seen, and possibly two different birds are delighting those lucky enough to get out on these beautiful beaches. Seeing one of these birds is always a memorable event.

At any rate you will be reading more about the CBCs in the coming weeks as the count period extends from Dec. 14 up to and including Jan. 5. This new count period was just agreed to and all CBCs must be conducted in this time period.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail