Regardless of the weather—rain, snow, wind, or clear sunny skies—if it’s sometime between December 14 and January 5, birders are getting up early across the entire Western hemisphere to count birds for the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). With a century of history behind this count, the annual Audubon CBC is a vital tradition that both brings people together and contributes valuable data to science.
From a modest beginning one Christmas in 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed counting birds as an alternative to hunting them, after more than 100 years, the annual event has achieved a life of its own. And with counts spanning the hemisphere from Canada and the United States to Panama, Colombia, and beyond, there’s a circle for any birder to join. After three years of working at Audubon, I was excited to finally participate as a novice birder this season.
Take a tour of these counts from the 124th Audubon CBC ranging from coastal Texas to the savannahs and forests of Colombia and back to the Eastern Seaboard.
With 3,359 miles of coast to cover and over 100 years of active stewardship, Audubon Texas takes pride in its robust coastal conservation programs. Right in the middle of the Texas coast is the Matagorda County circle—an area so significant to birds, the best birders in the state convene to count this circle each year. For Alexis Baldera, Audubon Texas coastal program manager, this circle represents the importance of the region both to the birds and the local communities that rely on it—as well as the need to continue our work to protect it. Similar to previous years, participants identified 225 species throughout the day (including the Franklin’s Gull, Wilson’s Plover, and more) across the full circle and 140 species in one of the subsections alone. Commenting on the sheer diversity of habitat covered in the Mad Island Marsh CBC in Matagorda, Richard Gibbons, Audubon Texas director of conservation, noted, “[w]e had observers for…[a] coastal mix of habitats: beach, dunes, flats, wetlands, marine, and the last stretch of one of Texas’s most beloved rivers, the Colorado.” Inland at the Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge Count just outside of Dallas, Audubon senior social media coordinator Gabrielle Saleh hiked through tall grasses in the refuge to count several LeConte’s Sparrows. She also spotted waterfowl galore and found a flock of Rusty Blackbirds at a later count at the Village Creek Drying Beds in Arlington, Texas. “I’ve been passionate about birds since I was a child—and joining Audubon’s Christmas Bird Counts is a way for me to help protect the birds I love so dearly and to make sure they’re around for generations after mine,” said Saleh. “This is my second time joining a count, and I’m excited to make this a tradition for each winter.”
In another large and biome-diverse state, Florida’s CBCs defy the stereotype of a cold winter count with generally more temperate weather. In the panhandle, Brian Cammarano, part of Florida’s coastal conservation team, led a CBC for the first time in Bay County. There, volunteers spotted a host of rare birds, including a Vermilion Flycatcher and a Western Kingbird. On being a first time leader, Cammarano remarked, “[a]n aspect that I always find so interesting is how count leaders have to create these makeshift teams made up of diverse members of all different skill sets and backgrounds in order to maximize coverage within the count circle.” At the other end of the state in West Palm Beach, birder and circle compiler Chuck Weber of Audubon Everglades views the annual count as a critical tool with which to gauge the changing landscape of his own backyard—especially when rare phenomena occur. “We’ve seen incredible changes in our own count circle. Our area has experienced phenomenal growth in population and urban development, so it’s important to continue to monitor what’s going on here.”
In the vast eastern plains of Meta, Colombia, Dr. Loreta Rosselli led the coordination of the CBC in the Triángulo del Puma. This count featured two giants of the CBC world in Colombia: Rosselli and her husband Dr. Gary Stiles. In fact, they introduced the first CBC to Colombia more than 30 years ago in Bogotá. They’ve also been leading the CBC at the Triángulo del Puma for the past 3 years and participate in the different biodiversity monitoring exercises being carried out in the region. As a conservation initiative, the Triángulo del Puma aims to protect its rich ecosystems comprising three private natural reserves (Yurumí, La Reseda and El Amparo) to ensure the preservation and mobility of the broader area’s flora and fauna. According to Pedro Camargo, biologist for Audubon Americas and participant of this count, due to the diversified funding sources for the Triángulo de Puma, the initiative has managed both to bring recognition to the biodiversity of the region and awareness to the threats faced by these important ecosystems, including the expansion of agro-industrial interests like palm oil, sugar cane, and timber. The day of the count, Rosselli led the group through the La Reseda Reserve, which encompasses savannah and both tropical forests and morichal forests—a forest of palm trees that only grow and thrive in a wetland setting. They observed a total of 82 species, including standout species like the White-chinned Jacamar and Great Potoo. They even encountered several species of anteaters.
On a private farm in Connecticut, the weather was cold and gloomy for this Birdability-sponsored bird count. Though it rained intermittently, the birders in this circle were in a golf cart, helping immensely not only with the rain but with the accessibility of the count overall. For volunteers like Barbara Seith who have specific mobility issues, patch birding, birding by car, and, in this instance, birding by golf cart allow her to participate without compromising her well-being. Ultimately, the specific needs of each birder determine how to make a specific count more accessible. “What defines accessible is going to be unique to the access needs of the individual. What’s going to make something work for someone like me is different from what will work for Barbara or for someone else with other needs,” said Cat Fribley, executive director of Birdability. Counting over 200 birds and 34 different species—including a surprising Common Goldeneye—Seith considers participating as part of her duty as a birder. “The Christmas Bird Count has been going on for so long. It’s important to hold onto that historical trend information as much as we can,” she said. “It helps you feel like you’re a part of the community.”
New York, USA
Before heading to Long Island, I bundled myself up in layers. This was my first Christmas Bird Count and I wanted to be prepared for the cold weather. I met up with count leaders Roxana Saravia and Julie Nelsen—both of whom work out of Audubon’s Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Center (TRSAC)—at Stillwell Woods Park, a partially wooded area with trails. The volunteers for the Christmas Bird Count with TRSAC this year were a mix of new people and familiar faces, including participants who recently joined their volunteer team, returning volunteers, and members of their Teen Conservation Ambassador group. Despite the cold and an unforeseen coincidence with a dog obedience training, we counted over 100 birds and 14 different species—including fan favorite Cedar Waxwings and a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. For Roxana, the annual count helps connect their community together even during less than ideal birding weather: “The CBC gets people outdoors during the winter and encourages them to learn more about the wonderful world of birds.” Sharing the joy of birds was the cherry on top of a successful morning birding for science.
Whether you’re looking for a birding challenge or you want to commune with other bird-loving folks, Audubon Christmas Bird Count welcomes all to join in, don their community science hat, and contribute some crucial data for avian scientists. As Audubon Florida’s first-time count leader Brian Cammarano says, “CBCs bring communities together! Simple as that.”