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Refuge Notebook: Refuge, birders, enthusiasts team up for Christmas Bird Count

Posted: Friday, December 17, 2010

Throughout North America thousands of volunteer birders are scouring their designated areas in over 2000 circles this Holiday season in the 111th annual Christmas Bird Count. This early-winter bird census is the longest running citizen science survey in the world.

During the count period, volunteers across the United States, Canada, and many countries in the Western Hemisphere identify and count all the birds they see during a 24 hour period.

Tomorrow local birders from the Kenai/Soldotna area will participate in this yearly tradition with the Soldotna Annual Christmas Bird Count.

The Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is an early-winter nationwide bird census where volunteers follow specified routes through a designated 15-mile (24-km) diameter circle, counting every bird they see or hear all day. It's not just a species tally -- all birds are counted all day, giving an indication of the total number of birds in the circle that day.

All CBC's across North America, including Canada, are conducted in the period between Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 each year, and each count is conducted during one calendar day in a given area. Both the Homer and Soldotna CBC will be held on December 18th, and the Seward CBC is scheduled for December 26th. Birders from other areas of Alaska also participate in this annual event.

The history of the origins of the Christmas Bird Count is quite interesting. The CBC began over a century ago when 27 conservationists in 25 localities, led by scientist and writer Frank Chapman, changed the course of ornithological history.

On Christmas Day in 1900, the small group posed an alternative to the "side hunt," a traditional Christmas day activity in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds and small mammals. Instead, Chapman proposed that they identify, count, and record all the birds they saw, founding what is now considered to be the world's most significant citizen-based conservation effort -- and a more than century-old institution.

Since Chapman's retirement in 1934, new generations of observers have performed the modern-day count. Today, over 55,000 volunteers from all 50 states, every Canadian province, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies, and Pacific Islands, count and record every individual bird and bird species seen in a specified area.

The data collected by observers on these Audubon Society Christmas Bird Counts over the past century have allowed researchers, conservation biologists, and interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. Christmas bird count data are now being used to see how birds may be reacting to global climate change. CBC's are valuable for detecting changes in bird distributions because these observations provide over a century of long-term data. Some species of birds are now being seen further North in the winter months as milder temperatures become more common.

The Soldotna Christmas Bird Count originated in 1983 with the center of the 15-mile diameter circle being the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge headquarters and covering most of the Soldotna area, including a good stretch of the lower and middle Kenai River.

Although the count was discontinued in 1992, it restarted in 1999 and has been running ever since with the dedication of local birder Jack Sinclair, who has been the Audubon local compiler of the data each year.

Last year the 2009 Soldotna CBC was conducted by 25 volunteers who braved the cold blustery weather, and saw 31 bird species and a total of 1309 individual birds.

Some of the more common birds seen during the Soldotna CBC have been the bald eagle, black-billed magpie, common raven, common redpoll, pine grosbeak, pine siskin and boreal and black-capped chickadee. In recent years, notable observations have included one adult slaty-backed gull who has been seen at the Soldotna Landfill during the last 5 consecutive CBC's. One white-crowned sparrow was recorded last year for only the second time in the count's history.

Birders, or anyone interested in participating in this year's Christmas bird count are welcome to meet Dec. 18 at Kaladi Brothers Coffee on Kobuk Street in Soldotna at 9 a.m., so that birding groups can be assembled and observation areas assigned.

CBC participants are organized into groups -- or field parties -- by the organizer or compiler of each Count. Each field party covers a specific area of the 15-mile diameter circle on a specific route. Inexperienced birders will be grouped with more seasoned CBC veterans to help familiarize them with where to go and what to look for.

For anyone wanting to pre-register, or just interested in the Christmas Bird Count, there is a wealth of information available online at http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/.

We encourage participants to dress warmly, and bring a good set of binoculars and a bird identification book for species most often found in Alaska. You may also want to bring a camera to document any rare or unusual sightings. There is a $5 fee per field participant which will help defray the cost of production and publication of the 111th Christmas Bird Count issue of American Birds.

Anyone having an active bird feeder in the count area can also help. Counting the single highest number of a species at a feeder at any one time, including any unique feathered visitors, is a big bonus to the count. All you will need to do is contact the local compiler so that you may report your results on the Count Day. No fees are charged for persons under 18 years of age, or for those planning to survey their backyard bird feeders during the Christmas Bird Count.

Participants do not have to be experts, but only have a desire to get outside and look for birds. The birding effort normally concludes at dusk (about 4 p.m.) or when weather precludes any measurable returns.

After a great day of birding, all participants are invited to submit their tally sheets and birding photos during a potluck social at 6 p.m. hosted by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. This potluck will be at the Refuge's Environmental Education log cabin located next door to the Kenai NWR headquarters/parking lot on Ski Hill Road. Please bring a dish to share.

For more information, contact Toby Burke at the Kenai refuge at 262-7021 or Jack Sinclair at 262-7817. If you come across a chickadee or northwestern crow with a deformed bill, please report it to USGS-Alaska Science Center online automated reporting system at http://alaska.usgs.gov/science/biology/landbirds/beakdeformity/index.html. This information will contribute to an important regional study on the causes of bill deformities in Alaska birds.

So what unusual birds might be seen during this year's Soldotna CBC?

Well, a very rare sighting of a turkey vulture and a red-winged blackbird was reported last month near the Anchor River, so you just never know!

Liz Jozwiak is a wildlife biologist for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Liz is transferring to Alpine, Arizona to work as the USFWS Field Coordinator with the Mexican Wolf Recovery Program starting in mid-January, 2011.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge website http://kenai.fws.gov/. You can check on local birds or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at 907-262-2300.



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