Part citizen-based science and part friendly competition, the 110th Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society is well under way.
The Black Hills Audubon Chapter conducted its share of the count last Sunday as dozens of birders ranging from the experienced to the novice canvassed a 15-mile radius centered south of Olympia.
Our group of five, which worked the shorelines, fields and forests of lower Eld Inlet, was led by Whittier Johnson, a longtime Audubon member and buddy of mine who is in the upper echelon of South Sound birders.
Like all expert birders, Johnson hears way more birds than he sees, thanks to highly functional hearing and countless hours listening to bird songs, both in the wild and on tape.
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Whether we’re at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Scatter Creek or Ralph and Karen Munro’s Triple Creek Farm on the shores of Eld Inlet, Johnson can pick out individual warblers, swallows, kinglets, chickadees and other feathered creatures while my ears hear nothing but the steady drone of freeway traffic in the distance.
“His ears are stunning,” commented Bill Tweit, one of South Sound’s pre-eminent birders and organizer of this year’s Black Hills Audubon bird count.
Our first stop of the day, shortly after 8 a.m., was the confluence of Perry Creek and Eld Inlet. I received a quick primer in gull identification and struggled with counting bufflehead, the smallest of all diving ducks and one that tends to dive in groups for safety.
We tallied 41 glaucous-winged gulls – they of the blue-gray wings, white heads and yellow beaks with a red spot on the lower mandible – three ring-billed gulls, 30 bufflehead, 18 mallards and 50 crows.
Our next stop at Mud Bay bagged 46 bufflehead; 18 mallards; five greater scaup, which is a large diving duck; 12 double-crested cormorants; 26 glaucous-winged gulls perched on the roof of the bead store; and one bald eagle.
We thought we spotted a cattle egret in a nearby field, but upon further review, it turned out to be a white plastic bag.
At the Munro farm, we took a leisurely loop through the forests, pastures and shorelines that make this such a magical place – and good bird habitat, too.
In less than four hours, we heard or saw 42 species, a telling reminder that South Sound is teeming with birds, even in the dreary days of winter.
The Munros, always the gracious hosts, took turns joining us for part of the bird survey of their property. Ralph was quick to explain why we only spotted two great blue heron.
“We used to have 126 heron nests, but they’re all gone; the bald eagles got them,” he said. “When they are hungry they go after everything – ducks, gulls, you name it.”
Our tally included four bald eagles, drawn in part to lower Eld Inlet by the spawning chum salmon.
In the woods and thickets, Johnson put his ears to good use, picking off a Hutton’s vireo, black-capped chickadees, golden-crowned sparrows. Bewick’s wrens and other little upland birds.
“The Thurston County count usually leads the nation in golden-crowned kinglets,” Johnson said. For the record, we tallied 40 of these tiny, tame birds with – you guessed it – an orange or a yellow crown patch on their heads.
Our observations included six of my favorite little birds – brown creepers, tiny brown-and-white-streaked birds with sharp, pointed bills. They forage for food by spiraling or directly climbing up a conifer. When threatened by a predator, they flatten their bodies against the tree trunk, spread their wings and tail, and remain motionless until the danger passes.
The Christmas Bird Count, which is taking place across locales throughout the Americas any day from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5, began in 1900, the brainchild of United States ornithologist and Auduboner Frank Chapman. Instead of a Christmastime hunt to see how many birds North Americans can kill, let’s just count them instead, he suggested.
Over the years, the event has grown in popularity, from 27 observers in 25 locations in the U.S. and Canada in 1900 to nearly 52,500 people in more than 1,800 places in 17 countries in 2000-01.
As our Sunday excursion showed, the bird count is healthy recreation with a dose of scientific value. By tabulating population data and trends on bird-species abundance and dispersal over more than 100 years, we know more about bird-conservation biology than we otherwise would.
From his first look at this year’s South Sound data, Tweit offered these observations:
• Gull numbers were way down from the thousands to the hundreds, for some unknown reason.
• Numbers of two marine birds – surf scoters and western grebes – showed a strong uptick after years of decline, perhaps the result of a boost in the availability of forage fish.
• Western screech owls were missing once again. “We used to see them regularly at Priest Point Park, The Evergreen State College campus and Woodard Bay,” Tweit noted.
• A pair of mute swans, which arrived at Capitol Lake in mid-November, were newcomers to the overall list.
• Ravens, Anna’s hummingbirds and cackling geese showed an increase in abundance.
The Christmas Bird Count is a wonderful holiday tradition. But I need some hearing aids to enjoy it to the fullest.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444