If you are reading this column over breakfast, I will have probably been in the field birding three hours or so already. Hopefully, I have already recorded night birds such as several species of owls and American woodcock as part of the Gastonia Christmas Bird Count. Today marks the first day of the count period, which runs through Jan. 5, 2014. More than 70,000 birders will take to the field to cover more than 1,800 Count Circles in the United States alone. Sponsored by National Audubon, it’s the longest-running citizen science project, going back 114 years.
For many birders, this is the highlight of their year. I will participate in six counts this season: Gastonia, Southern Lake Norman, Charlotte, Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge, Wilmington and Southport/Bald Head Island. Of course, finding the birds is the lure of the chase, but the camaraderie in the field with fellow birders and end-of-day tally ups and discussions are what make the experience memorable, too.
It’s not just about looking for and seeing birds, either. The continent-wide data provides long- and short-term insight into population trends, bird movement from year to year, and habitat loss or gain. Ideally the same people cover the same area from year to year to keep the data as true as possible. Researchers often cite Christmas Count data.
Everyone hopes to find a true rarity such as a snowy owl to report at the end of the day, but in the long run that rarity is no more important to the data base as the numbers of common grackles that are tallied. It all means something.
After completing the Gastonia Count, I will spend the night in Davidson to get an early start on the Southern Lake Norman Count Sunday. Charlotte is next on the itinerary for next Saturday, followed by Pee Dee on Dec. 28, Wilmington on Jan. 4, and the finale being Southport on Jan. 5. If you encounter some folks with binoculars and spotting scopes this season, let them know what you might have seen that day. Your sighting may get into the database, too.
For more information on Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, check out http://birds.audubon.org/christmas-bird-count.
Taylor Piephoff is a local naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.
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