This year marks the 102st anniversary of the Christmas Bird Count. On Christmas Day, 1900, 27 conservationists in 25 localities, led by ornithologist Frank Chapman, changed the course of history. 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.
Now, 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.
This year Juneau participants will meet Saturday, Dec. 15, 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
Count compilers - those responsible for organizing the event, reporting results and submitting the participation fees to the National Audubon Society - go to painstaking lengths to assure when Count Day comes that every leader and participant is already known and assigned an area. When dawn breaks, everybody knows exactly what they must do and the race is on, so to speak. In Juneau, we have always left some of the details to chance until Count Day. We generally have our leaders designated but the level of participation is never known until volunteers show up at the staging areas on the morning of the Count.
What happens over the next 15 minutes is along the lines of assembling a human jigsaw puzzle, that is, assuring group sizes and transportation needs are met, all areas are covered as best as possible given the personnel, and that volunteers are able to be with friends and work areas that are of the most interest to them.
Some people usually end up working in areas that weren't their first choice but are happy to go where is needed for the good of the Count. Usually by 8:15 a.m. leaders and volunteers are assembled and rapidly developing strategies as to how best cover their respective areas through the course of the day. There has been one recurring issue sometimes there is a shortage of volunteers in the town and Douglas Island locations. It would be helpful again this year if some participants chose to work those areas.
Volunteers need to have binoculars, a bird guide, and most importantly, prepare for almost any kind of environmental conditions. Juneau weather on Count Day can range 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 period, but the limiting factor really is daylight, and in late December, in Alaska, this doesn't leave many hours for counting birds.
Although it has grown in popularity as a social and competitive event, the count serves an important scientific function as well. The Count produces 100 percent volunteer-generated data that, over the years, has become a crucial part of the U.S. 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 Count 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 are now accessible as never before. Compilers will enter Count results directly into the database via the Internet, and the 102nd Count results will be viewable in near real-time at www.birdsource.org. More exciting yet, historical Count data from 1900 to the present are also now available through BirdSource, a cooperative project of the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. This has been a huge task and isn't finished yet, but the implications are very significant. Given the ease in which data will be available for research and analysis, the century-long database will surely begin to show its true worth.
The Juneau Count began in the mid-1960s and has been held annually since 1976. Last year 26 Juneau volunteers logged in 65 species and 10,420 individual birds. The most abundant species seen last year in Juneau were the mallard (1,967), glaucous-wing gull (1,366), Northwestern crow (1,120), and Canada goose (605).
Last year there were 11 Christmas Bird Counts conducted in Southeast Alaska and 35 across the entire state. Kodiak led all counts with 68 species on count day, with Juneau and Glacier Bay in close second with 65 species. Only 130 species were cumulatively recorded from the 35 counts, and it again shows that throughout much of the state, and especially when you get away from the milder coastal environments, species diversity is quite low. Once again, the Prudhoe Bay count tallied just one species, common raven.
As always, here in Juneau, there will be a potluck after the Count to share in the events of the day and 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 participating in Alaska Christmas Bird Counts for 30 years. Juneau Audubon Society will sponsor a panel discussion, "Managing for birds, planes, hikers at the Juneau Airport: a unique challenge," at its monthly meeting Thursday, Dec. 13, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School library.