Birders unite in Olympia area to count feathered friends

About 70 people fanned out across the Olympia area Sunday to count birds as part of an annual gathering known as the Black Hills Audubon Society Christmas bird count.

The Black Hills chapter is part of the National Audubon Society, and the bird count, at least nationally, has been taking place for more than 100 years, said Bill Shelmerdine, the local coordinator and count compiler Sunday.

The origins of the national and now international bird count, which helps to track bird population trends, were once a very different affair.

Around the turn of the previous century, the event was actually a hunt, with people shooting as many birds as they could find, Shelmerdine said.

But a leading conservationist at the time suggested counting the birds instead, and it has grown in popularity ever since, he said.

“From a conservationist point of view, it has been a great success,” Shelmerdine said.

Locally, last year’s count identified about 120 species, totaling about 50,000 birds, he said.

Results from this year’s count weren’t immediately available.

The count began about 8 a.m. Sunday and was set to end about 5 p.m. at First Christian Church in downtown Olympia, with everyone gathering for a chili feed.

In all, the count covered 16 areas in Olympia, including two areas covered by boat, he said.

Area 10 in west Olympia, near Mud Bay, is where Whittier Johnson’s group was, identifying bird after bird during one of the stops Sunday.

Group members used telescopes, binoculars and, sometimes, their ears to identify the birds.

After one particular chirp, Black Hills Audubon member Anne Marshall immediately identified a Pacific wren.

Marshall, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said she was inspired to become a bird-watcher while living in Florida because of the variety of birds that took advantage of the marshes and forests in the state.

Other birds identified by the seven people in Johnson’s group were the canvasback duck; a rare Hutton’s vireo, nondescript but tiny; an evening grosbeak, distinguished by its yellow color; mallards, geese, crows, bald eagles and, by about midday Sunday, 65 double-crested cormorants.

Johnson, a longtime Black Hills Audubon member, called the annual count one of the largest citizen-scientist efforts in the country.

Meanwhile, Shelmerdine busied himself with counting birds, particularly gulls, in the Mud Bay area, he said.

In terms of population, bald eagles and Anna’s hummingbirds are showing good numbers, Shelmerdine said.