Holiday tradition breaks new record as volunteers tally feathered flocks

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Steve Runnels was part of 2012's Christmas bird count, which brought out record numbers of volunteers.On an unassuming pond on Southwest Nimbus Avenue sits the most unique bird Steve Runnels has seen in quite a while.

“He is absolutely beautiful,” Runnels said with a thick Texas drawl.

It’s a typical Canada goose, with the telltale black and white markings on its head, but from the neck down it shines pure white.

“I have never seen anything like that,” said Runnels, who has been studying birds his entire life.

For Runnels, this is what Christmas is all about.

Runnels is one of hundreds in the Portland area who volunteered time Saturday to the annual Christmas Bird Count, held during the weeks stretching before an d after Dec. 25.

The annual census catalogs the bird populations across the Western Hemisphere in a one-day count — Portland’s was held Jan. 5 — and has been a yearly tradition for families and bird-lovers for generations.

Over the course of the day, Runnels and the rest of his nine-member team cataloged 50 species of birds along Southwest Scholls Ferry Road in Tigard and Beaverton.

That count is a bit low for them — their highest recorded 56 separate species in 2010.

In other parts of Tigard and Beaverton, other teams do their part to add to the count.

By Saturday night, the teams will have counted 129 species from Gresham to Tigard, a record number.

“We have steadily increased the number of species in the last eight years, most likely by getting better coverage of all the little nooks and crannies of habitat in the Portland area,” said Wink Gross, who coordinated the regional count.

Lori Hennings, a Metro biologist who led the team of 44 Tigard and Beaverton counters, said she has seen more and more interest in the annual bird count every year.

“This was the biggest (number of volunteers) we’ve ever had,” said Hennings, who has been involved in the Portland count for 15 years. “It seems to be growing a bit every year. It’s awesome, really.”

Portland-area bird counts attracted hundreds of volunteers in what Gross called the largest turnout in all of the United States and Canada.

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Canadian geese like these are one of the many species of birds counted by volunteers in the area each year.

Signs of climate change?

It’s impossible to count the total number of birds, Runnels said, there are just too many.

But when Portland’s data is added with other counts from across the country, scientists can decipher migratory patterns, learning where birds are and why.

“What we have found is that, on average, songbirds have shifted the northern end of their winter range northward about 36 miles, and that speaks directly to climate change,” Hennings said. “It is rare that we see something that clearly shows the climate change, and we only know that because we have such a huge nationwide effort counting birds.”

That volunteer effort, in turn, has implications on conservation projects across the country, Hennings said.

The Christmas Bird Count is citizen science, with volunteer-scientists doing much of the work. But Hennings said the census is such a large effort and has been going on for so long (it began in 1900) that it brings in great data.

Diverse group

Preston Sleeger, a former regional environmental officer for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the large pond on Nimbus Avenue is one of the best places to go bird watching in the Tigard area.

“There are diverse habitats here,” he said, spying a crow in the top branches of a tree. “But I also like to explore more to the south, places like Woodard Park or the neighborhoods around Ironwood Loop.”

Several members of the bird counting team are new to the hobby, participating in their first or second Christmas count.

When asked how they got started, the answer is unanimous.

“Preston got me into it,” said Terry Hatfield, who participated in his second count this year with this granddaughter, Teanna.

Sleeger often brings along newcomers to the sport, and he meets them everywhere. “It’s just fun,” Sleeger said, when asked how he got involved in the hobby. “I would look up birds in my mom’s bird book when I was in Maryland in the 1970s. And after a while, she said, ‘Why don’t you just get your own book?’ So I did.”

“(Bird watchers) are such a diverse group of people,” Sleeger said, adding that the group includes everyone from environmental biologists to chiropractors.

Participating in her first bird count, Chelsea Palm works at the Progress Ridge Piccolo Mondo Toys on Southwest Barrows Road.

“I’ve always been really interested in birds,” she said. “And then I met Preston, and he invited me to come out here.”

It’s a hobby that most can enjoy for little or no cost, said Karen Wager.

“You can just come on your lunch hour, park your car and look,” she said.

‘Never one like that’

Back at the lake, the white Canada goose blends in among the 3,000 cackling, honking geese that float out on the water. But through a pair of high-powered binoculars, the gander’s striking colors stand out.

“I’ve seen a lot of birds, but never one like that,” Runnels said.

Suddenly, the flock takes flight. The sky darkens for a moment as the large birds rise from the water, then disappear from view.

“Oh my gosh, that was incredible,” said Runnels. “That was worth the price of admission.”

“Um, did anyone get a final count?” one member asked.

Results from the Christmas Bird Count are expected later this year.

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