While most people are counting the days to Christmas, a group of die-hard avian fans are gearing up for the 119th National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.
This season’s annual count will take place from December 14 to January 5 in the Western Hemisphere. Each group picks one official count day during that time period to tackle a 15-mile wide diameter circle.
In Will County, the official count day is Saturday, December 15. Teams will count birds within a 15-mile diameter of Interstate 80 and Larkin Avenue in Joliet. No overlapping is allowed.
Bird-watching newbies and veterans alike are invited to participate and can find local bird-counting circles to join on the Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count map. (Green and yellow circles are open for new participants, and red circles are full.)
To participate in the Christmas Bird Count, you will need to join an existing circle by contacting the compiler in advance of the count day. In Will County, the person in charge of the count is Greg Bluhm, firstname.lastname@example.org. There also is a group counting in the Morris-Wilmington area on Saturday, December 29. That count is being organized by Bill Morris, email@example.com. A third count on Saturday, January 5, in eastern Will County is full.
Joel Craig, a Forest Preserve volunteer and a member of the Will County Audubon Society, said his group always wakes up extra early to get rolling on bird count day.
“We begin every Christmas Bird Count at 5:30 a.m. in old growth woodlands to count owls,” he said. “In December, great-horned owls are in courtship and extremely vocal before dawn and after dusk. Through the day, our group travels to various nearby preserves and locations with a variety of habitats, keeping track of every species encountered and how many of each.”
At the end of the day, local bird counters gather at an area restaurant to get warm and compile data.
"The Christmas Bird Count is, in essence, a community event," Craig said. "If a person lacks experience, there's always going to be someone else to take you under their wing and help out with identification and data collection. You can go out into the field and get dirty, or you can make it a family event by tracking what you see out the window at your bird feeders. All data is useful data that helps scientists have a greater understanding of the world around us."
The Christmas Bird Count is the longest-running citizen science project in the world, Craig noted. “Birds are great environmental indicators of the health of an ecosystem,” he said. “So it’s more important than ever for conservation-minded individuals to get involved at the grassroots level to ensure that accurate data collection regarding bird populations takes place. This will allow us to have a better understanding of how human activity influences the environment.”
Facing the Elements
This will be the 10th year Craig has participated in a Christmas Bird Count. Rita Renwick, past president of the Will County Audubon Society, has been involved since 1983.
“Part of the fun of participating is the comradery of fellow birders and facing the elements of the day,” she said. In recent years, Renwick said her organization has seen more robins on winter counts than in earlier years and even some bluebirds, but count results are always weather dependent.
“In years when food supplies are scarce farther north, we get pine siskins, common redpolls and snowy owls,” she said. “Red-breasted nuthatches are more abundant in some years and rarely seen in others.”
Some other memorable birds Renwick's Christmas Bird Count group has spotted in Shorewood include peregrine falcons, white-fronted geese and yellow-rumped warblers.
The National Audubon Society has kept track of all of these Christmas Bird Count trends since the inception of the event in 1901. The Christmas Bird Count was proposed back then to take the place of a traditional Christmas bird hunt.
"At a time when there was increasing awareness of declining bird populations, it was decided to have a count instead of killing birds," Renwick said.