For thousands of birders worldwide, Christmas begins Sunday. That is the opening day of the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, which runs through Jan. 5.
During those three weeks, birders will take to the field for a full day of counting birds and collecting bird population and distribution data. It is the longest-running citizen science program; this year marks the 115th anniversary of the count.
Participants fan out within a 15-mile diameter circle from a predetermined center to census all the species they encounter. Over the years, the data has proven valuable for researchers studying changes in populations and population shifts. By the time the period is over, over 50 counts will have been conducted in North Carolina and close to 30 in South Carolina.
This isn’t a casual stroll through the woods and fields looking at birds. This is an intensive effort where the mission is to find birds. That means getting off trail, walking through thickets, wading through marshes and swamps, getting in the field before sunup and staying after sundown. The count goes on rain or shine, cold or warm, wind or calm. I have done all-day counts in the freezing rain, deep snow and single-digit wind chills. This is serious business.
I will participate in five Christmas Counts this year: Southern Lake Norman on Dec. 14, Gastonia on Dec. 20. Charlotte on Dec. 27, Wilmington on Jan. 3 and Southport/Bald Head Island on Jan. 4. There are some other area counts of interest as well; York/Rock Hill on Dec. 20, Catawba Valley on Dec. 30, and Pee Dee Refuge on Jan. 3.
What’s the payoff? I get to spend all day with enthusiastic birders; I will see lots of good birds; there’s the potential to find a real local or state rarity; I know the information collected will go into a database that is constantly being tapped; and there is a free tally-up supper at the end of each day.