A windy annual Christmas Bird Count with few surprises

Sanderlings, part of a feeding group of 138 birds, feeding on count day on scallop shells at the northeast corner of Cape Pogue Bay — Photo by Lanny McDowell

Rob Culbert, who has participated in the annual Vineyard Christmas Bird Count (CBC) since 1978, said this week that the 52nd edition of the count “blew him away. Literally, it was windy.”

Mr. Culbert, an ecologist, is the count compiler for the Vineyard. This year’s Christmas count took place on Monday, January 2, with about 60 Islanders and guests participating. Mr. Culbert said that while the wind and the mild seasonal temperatures affected the count, he didn’t think they made a statistically relevant difference. His field team, one of 12, set out at 6 am to canvas one of the 12 territories established to keep the counters from counting the same birds. His group returned to the Wakeman Center count headquarters around 4:30 pm.

The long, blustery day yielded a Vineyard count across the 12 territories that registered 119 species and about 21,000 individual bird sightings. Last year’s figures where nearly identical: 119 species and 16,000 sightings. Mr. Culbert pointed out that the difference in sightings compared to many other years relegated them to the insignificant.

There were 135,000 sightings in 2002, and he added that in the last 50 years, bird populations have declined 30 to 70 percent worldwide due to a variety of factors. Through the years and across the large number of counts conducted each year, the variations tend to even out, and statistical analysis of CBC data has emerged as a powerful tool for the study of birds on a continental scale. Even at the local level, CBC results often cast a surprising light on the world of birds and birders.

Mr. Culbert said the fish crow, a distant cousin to the American common crow, was the most unusual bird spotted, having a confirmed sighting only one other time, last year, on the Vineyard.

The local count is part of a continent-wide network of more than 2,000 annual counts coordinated by the National Audubon Society. There are 30 counts in Massachusetts. The counts can be conducted on any single day between December 14 and January 5. Staggering the counts between neighboring “count circles” allows birders to participate in more than one count.

Together, these surveys mark a traditional high point of a birder’s year and provide one of the most powerful methods for monitoring bird distribution and populations. The first Vineyard count was in 1960.

Mr. Culbert explains that the Audubon count was “the first ‘citizen science project,’ before that term was used.” He said that the count began in 1900 and was in part a reaction to a hunting tradition known as the “Christmas Side Hunt” where groups of hunters would divide themselves into two sides, or teams. The team bringing in the most birds won.

Mr. Culbert encourages anyone who is interested to come out next year. Each field group is led by an experienced birder, a field captain, who will show neophytes the ropes. The count is important science and, he added, “it’s a lot of fun.”