Annual bird count is sponsored by Audubon Society and is conducted in a 15-mile diameter circle

If you noticed people driving slowly through town and around the valley on Tuesday with their windows down peering through binoculars, don’t be alarmed. by: SCOTT STAATS SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Tom Crabtree and Mark Gonzalez looking through spotting scopes at waterfowl on Barnes Butte Reservoir.

They weren’t peeping Toms, Men in Black, CIA or FBI but a few dozen birders combing the area in search of their feathered quarry during the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

Sponsored by the National Audubon Society The census is conducted within a 15-mile diameter circle. Besides numbers and species of birds, other data is collected such as habitats, weather, number of counters and miles traveled by car and on foot.

Last holiday season, bird watchers came out in record numbers across the U.S. and Canada to participate in the Christmas Bird Counts. More than 70,000 people joined 2,369 count circles. Hundreds of millions of individual birds of more than 600 species are recorded each year in this oldest continuous wildlife survey in North America.

Each count is conducted during a single day within two weeks of Christmas from Dec. 14, 2013 to Jan. 5, 2014 and this marked the 114th season. Prior to the turn of the century, people engaged in a holiday tradition known as the “Christmas Side Hunt.” They would choose sides and go afield with their guns and whoever brought in the biggest pile of feathered (and furred) quarry won.

Beginning on Christmas Day 1900, Frank Chapman, a famed ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History and the editor of Bird-Lore (which became the publication of the National Association of Audubon Societies when that organization formed in 1905), proposed a new holiday tradition — a “Christmas Bird Census” — that would count birds during the holidays rather than shoot them. He recognized that declining bird populations could not withstand wanton over-hunting.

That first Christmas Bird Count included 27 dedicated birders and 25 counts that day in locations ranging from Toronto, Ontario to Pacific Grove, Calif. with most counts in or near the population centers of northeastern North America. Those original 27 Christmas Bird Counters tallied around 90 species on all the counts combined.

The Prineville Christmas Bird Count began in 1966. Due to lack of participation the count ceased in 1973. It restarted in 1991 and has been conducted every year since then. The area covered for the count goes roughly from Allen Creek in the north to lower Davis Loop in the south, and from Elliott Lane in the west to just past Ochoco Reservoir in the east.

I teamed up with Mark Gonzalez and Tom Crabtree, both from Bend. We covered the area northeast of town from around Barnes Butte up and around Johnson Creek Road. The three of us saw 48 species while the total for the day for all groups was 90 species, two short of the record for the Prineville count. Total number of individual birds counted was 14,450 by 23 people who participated in the count.

We set high count records for Eurasian Collared-Dove (432), Belted Kingfisher (17), Mountain Chickadee (98), Harris’ Sparrow (tied record of 2) and Tricolored Blackbirds (281). The Harris’ Sparrow was a life bird for me.

The highest number of species seen during any count was 91 in 2002 and in 2012. The highest number of individual birds counted occurred in 1993 when 39,793 were seen (almost 20,000 of those were robins).

“I would say the biggest surprise for our group was how warm it was and how little snow was on the ground,” said Crabtree. “We’ve never been able to cover all of our territory before. The second most surprising thing was the number of raptors we had (Bald and Golden Eagle, Northern Harrier, Red-tailed hawk, Ferruginous hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, American Kestrel, Merlin, and Prairie Falcon).

When asked what he likes about birding, he said that could be an article in itself. However, he added, “Suffice it to say that the worst day birding is better than the best day in the office.” His life list is at 725.

Not only is this survey fun, it also gathers data of scientific significance. These counts are very important in that they help provide worldwide population data. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

For example, local trends in bird populations can indicate habitat fragmentation or signal an immediate environmental threat, such as groundwater contamination or poisoning from improper use of pesticides.

“It was beautiful day to be outside, observing nature, sharing friendships and participating in a holiday tradition,” said Gonzalez. “Birding is the perfect excuse to enjoy the outdoors.”

Since arriving in Central Oregon in 2010, Gonzalez has been to every Prineville CBC, every Bend CBC and about half of the Redmond CBCs. He has participated in CBCs in five different states and said he’s done about 50 or more in the past 15 to 18 years. His life list is nearing 1,000 birds.

“I like hunting, but it has seasons and bag and possession limits,” he explained. “The season never closes on birding and there are no bag limits. You can bird everywhere and anytime of the year. Different birds migrate through our area twice a year at staggered intervals, so there is always a new ‘show’ in town. Plus, you can travel to new places and new habitats, and there are new birds to discover and enjoy.”

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