For the birds

Documentary about the birds of Central Park prepares us for the Christmas Bird Count.


You will want to go out and grab your binoculars right after watching “Birders: The Central Park Effect,” a stunning documentary about the backyard wilderness in the middle of Manhattan. The Chilmark library will host Luanne Johnson, director and wildlife biologist at BiodiversityWorks, who will discuss the film and more on Dec. 15 at 5 pm. You can view the engrossing work beforehand on Kanopy, which you can access through your local library.

The documentary makes a point of showing us the enormous variety of birds that come through Central Park during the spring and fall migration, as well as those that stick around for the summer and even winter seasons. According to the film, and we see a tracking device in the movie that shows it, millions of birds fly over Manhattan on any given night, and a few thousands descend each dawn into the park to feast and rest for the day. This and other urban parks provide small green oases up and down the East Coast.

Following groups of birders around the park in every season, we discover their daily finds, which they view as treasures. The footage is marvelous, making it seem as if we are coming upon these avian wonders ourselves. There are many moments of sparkling beauty that make you long for the great outdoors. One of my favorite parts of the documentary was when they roll the credits, in which they credit the birds we have seen in what seems like an endless list that scrolls down.

Fortunately, living on the Vineyard, we’re blessed with many different habitats and hence a variety of fine feathered friends. Johnson shares, “We have great birding on the Island year-round. I go birding almost every weekend throughout the year with friends. We have some usual spots we frequent, but we bird in different areas depending on the season. We have a lot of land in conservation, and many important bird habitats protected. Those include beaches, saltmarshes, freshwater wetlands, forests, shrublands, grasslands, and fresh/salt ponds.”

Johnson coordinates one of the annual special birding events — the Christmas Count. The annual tradition is country-wide. Its origins are a little sordid. According to the Chilmark library press release, in the 1800s, an insane holiday tradition was hastening the extinction of bird species all over North America. The Side Hunt, held each year on Christmas Day, was a slaughter where armed participants wandered the countryside shooting at every bird and small animal they saw. Teams then tallied their kills to find out which side won. Birds were not the winners. Conservationists became increasingly alarmed, so they decided to flip the Side Hunt tradition, proposing that participants arm themselves with field glasses rather than rifles, and that they count the birds rather than kill them.

The very first Christmas Bird Count was held on Christmas Day in 1900. Today, the Bird Count is one of the largest “citizen science” efforts regularly held anywhere in the world. According to the Audubon Society, each year tens of thousands of volunteers brave snow, wind, or rain to take part in the effort. Audubon and others use data collected in this wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations and help guide conservation action.

On the Vineyard, Johnson explains, “We cover a much larger area than Central Park, as Martha’s Vineyard is 100 square miles, which we divide into 13 territories, so all areas are searched for birds during the Christmas Bird Count.

“I have a list of team captains for the 13 areas of the Island. I send out the instructions and field sheets for the CBC, and information for the tally at the end of the day, which is usually held at the Wakeman Center,” Johnson explains. “This year, it will have to be a virtual tally on Zoom. In addition to the field teams, there are people who submit counts of birds from their bird feeders. Last year, we had 65 birders in the field and 16 people reporting birds from their feeders. We have volunteers who then tally that data and share it with me.”

Participating in the count is no walk in the proverbial park. “The Christmas Count is kind of like a marathon,” Johnson says. “You train for it all year, and then you spend the day pushing yourself and being in the race to find as many birds and bird species as possible with your team. It is a warm and wonderful community that normally gathers at the end of the day to enjoy a hot meal and share highlights, while we tally the species and compare with prior years.”

Johnson will share at the Zoom event how we can participate this year. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, they are not taking any new birders for the CBC teams in the field this year. Anyone with a bird feeder, though, can participate and will find the instructions here:

Even if you don’t participate in the Christmas Count, as Johnson says, “Birdwatching is like a treasure hunt each time you go out the door. You never know what you might find, and there isn’t much better than marveling at the beauty and behavior of birds with friends.”

For an invitation to discuss the film and the annual Christmas Bird Count with Luanne Johnson on Dec. 15 at 5 pm, contact at the Chilmark library.