Time for the Juneau Christmas bird count

Posted: Friday, December 01, 2000

Draw a circle 15 miles in diameter, pick a day with minimum hours of daylight and high likelihood of miserable weather, then go outdoors and count every bird you see.

That's the unlikely formula for the century-old Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

The Juneau CBC began in the mid-1960s and has been held annually since 1976. Last year 30 Juneau volunteers logged in 72 species and 13,554 individual birds. The most abundant species seen last year in Juneau were the mallard (2,815), northwestern crow (1,765), glaucous-wing gull (1,058) and surf scoter (1,013).

This year participants will meet Saturday, Dec. 16, no later than 8 a.m. at either McDonald's restaurant. People interested in counting in the downtown, Douglas and North Douglas Island areas should meet at the downtown McDonald's; birders wishing to work the Lemon Creek, airport, Mendenhall Valley and Auke Bay areas should meet at the valley location.

In recent years, there has been a shortage of volunteers in the town and Douglas Island locations, so it would be helpful if some participants chose to work those areas this year.

Appropriate attire, bird guide and binoculars are a must.

Juneau weather on Count Day has ranged from mild with no snow and open fresh waters to truly bone-chilling wintry weather, with everything locked in snow and ice, and Taku winds screaming across Gastineau Channel.

In Alaska it is always a race with the sun, as the count must be done within a 24-hour day, and the amount of daylight in late December doesn't leave many hours for counting birds.

Sightings are as unpredictable as the weather. In 1998, Bob Armstrong's group located a peregrine falcon, new to our Christmas count list. But most amazing, when they found the falcon it was in the final stages of taking down and killing a short-eared owl. Quite exceptional! Not to be outdone, in 1999 Rich Gordon witnessed a gyrfalcon killing a sharp-shinned hawk!

Two of Juneau's most skilled, dedicated CBC volunteers, Bob Armstrong and Rich Gordon have participated in essentially every local Christmas Bird Count. Although birders of all skill levels are encouraged to participate, the veteran skilled observers are invaluable in assuring species are identified as accurately as possible and areas are covered consistently from year to year.

Last year there were 31 Christmas Bird Counts in Alaska, with 10 in Southeast Alaska. counts were conducted across much of the state, from Ketchikan to Prudhoe Bay and Unalaska.

Anchorage's 144 volunteers (84 field observers and 60 feeder watchers) counted 13,821 birds, tops in the state for both participants and individual birds. Kodiak, as is often the case, reported the most species on count day, 78, whereas only one species was seen at Prudhoe Bay, the Common Raven.

This year marks the 101st anniversary of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), and the beginning of the second century since 27 conservationists in 25 localities, led by ornithologist Frank Chapman, changed the course of history.

On Christmas Day 1900, the group initiated an alternative to the traditional holiday 'side hunt,' in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds. Instead of hunting, the group counted the birds they saw and founded a century-old institution.

This year, more than 50,000 volunteers from all 50 states, every Canadian province, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and Pacific islands will participate in 1,800 individual Christmas Bird Counts held during a two-and-a-half week period. Each Count group has a designated circle 15 miles in diameter, about 177 square miles, where they try to cover as much ground as possible within a 24-hour calendar day.

Although it has grown in popularity as a social and competitive event, the count serves an important scientific function as well.

The CBC produces 100 percent volunteer-generated data that, over the years, has become a crucial part of the United States government's natural history monitoring database. It represents the longest running ornithological database.

Birds are one of the first groups of animals to be affected by environmental threats such as pollution and habitat destruction, and CBC data provide indispensable information, not only on long-term health of bird populations, but also the status of the environment that birds share with all living things.

Count data is now accessible as never before. Compilers will enter count results directly into the database via the Internet and the 101st count results will be viewable in near real-time.

Moreover, this year marks the first season that Bird Studies Canada is the Canadian partner in the Christmas Bird Count. The designated Christmas Bird Count compilers for each count will enter their data online via Bird Studies Canada's homepage http://www.bsc-eoc.org or through BirdSource, a cooperative project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology at http://www.birdsource.org.

Historical Count data from 1900 to the present are currently available through BirdSource.

Following another local tradition, there will be a potluck after the Juneau CBC to share in the events of the day and to conduct the tally of birds and species seen. For more information on the Juneau Christmas Bird Count, call Mark Schwan at 789-9841.

Mark Schwan has been coordinating Juneau's Christmas Bird Count since 1991 and has participated in almost every count since moving to Juneau in 1979. Juneau Audubon's monthly meeting will feature plans for a wetland mitigation bank with Sylvia Kreel of CBJ and sharing of favorite slides at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 in the Dzantik'I Heeni Middle School library.

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