Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Treehugger Tuesday

Big Payoff for Christmas Bird Counts

The following article appeared in the Poughkeepsie Journal:

Bird Count Helps Document Impact of Climate Change
Karen Maserjian Shan 10:54 p.m. EST December 27, 2014

Each December Herb Thompson has his eyes on a special event.

Called the Christmas Bird Count, the annual happening is a favorite activity among Thompson and his bird-watching friends.

"It's a real tradition, every year," said Thompson, census chair of the Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club in LaGrangeville.

Now in its 115 year, the Annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count is taking place from Dec. 14 through Jan. 5. During the count, more than 70,000 volunteers from 2,400-plus locations across the country note sightings of specific birds with the data collected and submitted to Audubon through regional coordinators for research on bird life and environmental conditions, including contributions to the U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative's State of the Birds reports.

"The Audubon Christmas Bird Count harnesses volunteer power to gather knowledge that shapes conservation policy at enormous scales in this country," said Audubon president and CEO, David Yarnold in a released statement. "I couldn't be prouder of the volunteers who contribute each year. Christmas Bird Count data is becoming increasingly important not only in documenting current climate change but in predicting the future effects of climate change on North American bird populations. If we know what to expect, we can start taking action now to do something about it."

According to the released statement, during last year's Christmas Bird Count, 71,659 observers in all 50 states and beyond recorded more than 66 million birds of 2,403 different species.

Eric Lind, director of the Constitution Marsh Audubon Center and Sanctuary in Cold Spring, Putnam County, said because data from the Christmas Bird Count stems so far back, long term trends can be assessed.

"From year-to-year, you can't really say much," he said of bird trends. "But when you're looking at where they are over a longer period of time, especially across a continental scale, that's when you see their location and numbers reflecting long-term changes in the environment."

For example, he said, conventional wisdom held that sightings of American robins heralded the first sign of spring, since the birds migrated to warmer southern climates in the winter. But data collected during recent decades shows that's no longer the case.

"Researchers have seen a 200-mile shift northward where robins are spending their winters about 200 miles north in areas than they used to," said Lind, a likely indication that our winters have gotten milder with the birds responding to that environmental change.

Participating in the Christmas Bird Count allows everyday people, or citizen scientists, to join in the data collection while enjoying the outdoors, meeting and mingling with others and contributing to a worthwhile effort.

"There's tons of surprises," Lind said. "The main point is, you don't have to be an expert. Even if you see a tree sparrow for the first time or recognize it as a tree sparrow for the first time, that's your own personal discovery."

Birds in regions north of here, he said, use this area as their winter escape, with sightings of them happening only in the winter. Other birds, like the pine siskin, are more erratic in their migration, making a sighting of one a once-a-four-or-five-year event.

"The most important thing is just bring a curious mind," Lind said. "A curiosity and excitement about participating."

Ken Rosenberg, who has a doctorate in ornithology and is an applied conservation scientist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, Tompkins County, said birds, which are relatively easy to monitor, are indicators of various conditions, both thriving and deteriorating.

"We're making an assumption that a healthy environment and healthy planet is good for people and nature and all the species that are supposed to be in that environment," he said.

A half-century ago, dying birds were a visible indicator of the toxins in DDT, said Rosenberg, a widely used pesticide in the 1940s and 1950s. As a result of those bird deaths and other findings, policy changes and bans on the toxin ensued to the benefit of birds, humans and other life.

"The canary in the coal mine policy is real," said Rosenberg, referring to the past practice of coal miners to use a canary to detect the presence of unnoticed lethal gases. If the bird stressed or died, the miners knew the gases were present and harmful to them as well.

"Some of the analysis of the Christmas Bird Count, in particular, are grounded in climate change," said Rosenberg. "Right now birds are somewhat our first indicators of what might be happening. They're so sensitive to things like temperature and drought, so when we see these birds moving around, it's a very strong indicator that these changes are taking place. When we see bird populations shifting right before our eyes, that's a real tangible indicator that these things are happening right now."

Thompson said members of the Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club have participated in the Christmas Bird Count since 1901 and continuously since 1958.

"I guess it's that we like birding," he said. "It's a whole day. We have 24 hours to count as many species and number of birds as we can."

On the day of the count, Thompson and a couple of his birding pals typically meet at a friend's house in Hopewell Junction at the ultra-early hour of 3:30 a.m. in the hope of spotting a screech owl or two, which normally aren't seen in daylight. The Dutchess County circle draws 45 to 50 participants for Christmas Bird Count, said Thompson, with everyone broken up into small groups of two to four people covering different areas. In all, the day is spent driving from one place to another, walking around, counting birds and recording findings, which Thompson collects and sends to Audubon for report data.

Last year, it snowed during the Christmas Bird Count, making it hard to see birds for the count, especially since many of them took cover. This year Thompson's hoping for clear skies and robust sightings.

"A lot of graduate students study those numbers to work up different theories," he said. "It's the same time period every year done in the same bunch of circles. You get long-range data there and you can figure things out."

Karen Maserjian Shan is a freelance writer: mkshan@optonline.net

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