End of the year means it's time to count the birds

It takes a rare breed of person who would pay to spend an entire day counting birds.

But binocular-clad bird watchers, described as both tenacious and dedicated to their craft, have conducted the National Audubon Society bird count across North America since the tradition started as a protest on Christmas Day 1900.

Over a century ago, a group of conservationists led by ornithologist Frank Chapman initiated the census as an alternative to the "side hunt," which teams on two opposing sides competed to see who could shoot the most birds.

These days, almost 55,000 volunteers in all 50 U.S. states, all Canadian provinces, parts of Central and South Americas, Bermuda, the West Indies and Pacific islands pay $5 each to record every bird spotted in a 24-hour calendar day.

Each group out of 1,800 covers a designated circle that is 15 miles in diameter. Volunteers give the results to a compiler, who submits the data online to the club by the end of the three-week period held between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5, 2001.

The Lahontan Audubon club chapter based in Reno conducted its count last weekend, with volunteers spotting the usual and the unexpected.

Jack Walters, one of 23 volunteers who recorded 88 species in the 8,000 counted in the Carson City area south to Jacks Valley, noted an unexpected northern shrike near the Carson River. The songbird has a hook-tipped bill and hawk-like behavior.

"When it gets cold, (the shrikes) drift down into Nevada and stick around until the second week of January," said Walters, who's taken part in the count since 1982. The Carson City count center is located where U.S. Highway 50 and Airport Road meet.

Walters, who was out with the Carson group at 6:30 a.m. Sunday, also recorded eight Great-Horned Owls. They're usually spotted either early morning or late night by their distinctive, sequential call - "Hoo, Hoo."

Demonstrating the diligence bird watchers have for their sport, Walters said he has made five trips to the Las Vegas area this year and frequently travels to Texas to spot his feathered friends.

"Sometimes the birds might run you $5,000," Walters said of the expensive activity that has captured the attention of 30 million people in the United States. Many bird watchers carry lists of birds to potentially check off, sometimes flying out-of-state to do so.

"It's a labor of love. Those birds are pretty addictive," said Dave McNinch, who has taken part in the Truckee Meadows and Fallon counts in southwest Reno since 1985.

McNinch said he was pleasantly surprised when his group of 35 volunteers spotted a long-billed dowitcher, a rust- or grey-colored shorebird that was supposedly far away from home.

Among the usual varieties of ducks and geese and predatory hawks and eagles out of 111 species recorded this year, the Lahontan chapter group also scored a Eurasian wigeon in Truckee Meadows.

"This is a rare bird around here," McNinch said of the marsh duck that's a common transient in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, the homebase for a species of Canada geese that once came close to extinction.

McNinch's group also recorded a northern pygmy owl near Hunter Creek southwest of Reno.

On the opposite side of the Sierra Nevada, Cliff Hawley of the Sacramento Audubon chapter plans to go out "owling" at 4:30 a.m. Saturday on the west side of the capital city.

In South Lake Tahoe, Ken Smith - a retired doctor - initiated an informal, splinter group of bird counters 18 years ago and lasted nearly a decade. Smith, who used to go out on the count with his wife before she died, hailed the census-taking as a good way to track bird trends.

"We'd get a year-to-year estimate of birds to see whether long-term changes (to migratory or nesting behavior) have taken place," Smith said.

The National Audubon Society has seen many changes take place in the club itself.

The number of bird watchers has leaped from 1983 by 155 percent to more than 54 million people, national spokesman John Bianchi reported. And within a five-year period, the sport of bird watching has grown $10 billion to a $31 billion eco-tourism industry.

Why is the industry soaring?

"The aging baby boomers are having kids and want a wholesome, good activity outdoors to do together," Bianchi said.

These boomers represent a large population, with a trailing social consciousness that's a throwback from the 1960s.

Other bird-related trends the club has witnessed over the years include the drop in populations of the various species of wood ducks in the 1910s, wild turkeys dwindling down in the 1940s and the dramatic impact of DDT on the peregrine falcon. The predator almost went extinct in the 1960s but was taken off the endangered species list a year and a half ago.

"Birds act like canaries in a coal mine," Bianchi said. "They are telling us (about their survival) even to this day."


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment