Counting birds: More than a hobby
BURROWING OWLS can be seen during the Christmas Bird Count, such as this one that appears to be putting his left foot in for a hokie-pokie.
Martyn Stewart/Special to the Index-Tribune
While birding is one of the fastest growing hobbies in America, it can also have far reaching implications. The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count sends thousands of birders across the U.S. to track the American bird population, information that is used by a variety of government organizations on everything from conservation efforts to climate change research.
Now in its 113th year nationally, the Christmas Bird Count offers seminal data on the birds of America, which, as the expression goes, often act as the canaries in the coal mine on larger environmental issues. One example is the American robin, which in the last 20 years has been spotted farther north than it had ever been seen in December, because warmer temperatures means the winters aren’t harsh enough to drive the bird south. It was one of many bird species that has changed geographical territory in recent years, causing the Environmental Protection Agency to use the data of the Christmas Bird Count as one of the 26 indicators of climate change in its 2012 report.
“The annual Christmas Bird Count is the largest citizen science effort in North America,” said Tom Rusert, who with his partner, Darren Peterie, founded the Sonoma Valley Audubon Christmas Bird Count in 2004.
“When we started this eight years ago, there hadn’t been a new Christmas Bird Count in America in more than 40 years,” he said.
Sonoma Valley’s count takes place on Friday, Dec. 28, as teams head out from dawn to dusk, spanning a 15-mile diameter circle centered on Arnold Drive at Orange Avenue. Each team includes seasoned birders who are partnered with more novice spotters and recorders to track the data. There is also a special team that heads out at midnight on Dec. 28 to count nocturnal owls. The final day to sign up is Wednesday, Dec. 26, at SonomaBirding.com, or 939-8007.
Birders from nearly 40 cities across California travel to Sonoma to take part in the count. Rusert said it’s the wide variety of feathered creatures that inhabit Sonoma Valley that makes its an appealing count for birders.
“In 2011, we were again ranked in the top 40 Christmas Bird Counts in North America … both in the total number of species gathered and also in the number of participants,” Rusert said, explaining that an average of 170 species are counted during the day.
Rusert said over the past eight years, he’s seen significant changes in Sonoma Valley’s bird population. Species such as the burrowing owl have begun to re-establish a local population thanks to human habitat intervention. By attracting well-qualified birders, six new species have also been added to the master birding list of the area, including the ruff and the white-faced ibis, red-breasted merganser, phainopepla, great-tailed grackle and the grasshopper sparrow.
“We’re also seeing trends of more humming birds in the winter, largely because more people are putting up feeders,” Rusert said.
For those who prefer to stay close to home and have birds visit them, Rusert said the Great Backyard Bird Count will take place concurrently. Birders who can accurately identify species are invited to count the birds they spot in their own backyard for at least 15 minutes to contribute to the research effort.
“We want to encourage those people who can’t take part in the rigorous 24-hour event to participate in the feeder watch,” Rusert said, explaining that more details can be found at SonomaBirding.com.
The day ends with a celebratory tabulation potluck at the Sonoma Community Center, which partnered with Sonoma Birding to offer the event. The dinner begins at 5 p.m. and those who do not bring a dish to share will be asked to contribute $10 to help cover costs.
This year marks the last year Rusert and Peterie will host the count in Sonoma.
Rusert said it takes a significant amount of time to coordinate, which has prevented them from visiting friends and family during the holiday season the last eight years. They are looking for another environmental organization to continue the Sonoma Valley count in the future.
“It’s been a really great journey. But this is our farewell, this is our swan song,” Rusert said.