Rogue Birder, ch 8, Christmas Counts

Christmas Counts

Being back home by April 1963 was just in time to begin watching for migrants of Rogue country, and when time allowed, I went birding. It was great to see my old Rogue bird species, and calming to revisit some of my old haunts. My field notes of some of my earlier trips taken during the same seasons revealed I was now seeing a few more species. Was it because more kinds of birds were frequenting those locals or something else? My theory is related to the old axiom use it or lose it. All those days of continuous birds, close to 270 glorious days, just might have helped sharpen my abilities to find and identify birds. Maybe. Not being content with only Rogue birds, I made brief forays outside the valley. One was a four-day trip up the Oregon coast from Brookings to Tillamook, then inland with a stop in Willamette Valley at Hubbard to visit my old mentor Tom McCamant.

Tom invited me back to his home for a few days in late December and asked me to participate in the Woodburn-Hubbard Christmas Count. Collaborating with 10-year-old Danny Pitney, we ended up finding a late or rare wintering Turkey Vulture and 51 other species. All counters found 65 species, 13 more than last year. Regrettably, I would never see Tom again as I plunged into school, with time out for birding on rare and rarer occasions. Somehow I crowded in work for the Department of Science, met a few regulars, students of coffee and other subjects. Otherwise, I was a social hermit, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Before I realized I would have little time for birds, I stubbornly hammered my schedule of books and work to include time to refashion the Medford Christmas Count. Jimmy Hicks, the previous compiler welcomed giving up the position of compiler. Little did I know then that a practicing Christmas Count Compiler is far more work than being a party participant. Worry set in. Could I lead the participants to produce a good count? Would they have fun doing the count? While in Florida, I heard occasional grumbling from demands from a compiler. Would I be the cause of mutiny? Would I upset anyone by rejecting a report of an unbelievably outlandish species? Earlier, I had been a sub-regional editor a couple of years for what then was Audubon Field Notes, gathering all of the Rogue Birders’ seasonal notes, and sending them to the regional editors for our region. My compiled reports were hopefully devoid of Bristle-thighed Curlew, Ivory-billed Woodpecker or Bachman’s Sparrow. I almost wrote devoid of cardinals, Blue Jays and Snow Buntings, but all three have made their debut to Rogue country. As for finding a Bristle-thigh, a not yet is the thought of any good birder. I worried about omitting any report since essentially anything is possible.

By October, I earnestly began surveying the Christmas Count circle in order to know every road and lane, every habitat, every wide place where a participant could pull off the road and rattle the bushes at a culvert or private driveway, where the ponds are and accessibility to each and every tree and field. I also compiled all of the previous Medford counts, determined the frequency of species and listed the birds that are sometimes missed or difficult to find. The idea was to concentrate on those rare aves, find out where they might be on count day. Although I should not have, I was working more for a high species count than attempting to see as many species as possible and also as many individuals as possible.

Based on the abundance of species during the last few years of the Medford count, common meant 26 to 101 species in a single day; uncommon meant only 1 to 5 birds were in a single day. Numbers were assigned each of these categories with 1.5 for abundant to 6.0 for rare birds. Each species had an index indicating frequency of observation during 11 years of counts. A species found once in 11 counts was truly a species the group needed to work extra hard to find. Finally, I assigned an index value for each species based on what I arbitrarily thought might disturb them. Human and natural disturbances were each separate index values. For example, a 5.0 was likely to be disturbed such as minor hunting. Natural disturbance, like human disturbance ranged from one to six. A one meant that even “weather would have would have little or no influence” on a given species. A six, I considered, would very likely disturb a bird. “Large areas destroyed or made unusable. Birdlife destroyed or depleted to small numbers. I do not recall, but a six was doubtfully in use since no events approaching Chernobyl transpired. An average of the indices for each category of disturbance and frequency provided what I called a Stability Index. For example, a 1 to 1.5 bird is a stable bird and a 5.6 to 6.0 was an erratic species. Translated, the stable bird or population might be detectable, with some reliability, in the same place for weeks and an erratic one might be detectable in less than a week.

With all my ducks in a row, with sparrows bringing up the rear, each assigned a stability index value, I could, I thought, predict what species would most likely be located on count day. I then surveyed every nook and cranny in the count area beginning in October to a few days before count day. From the surveys, a list of species that might go unnoticed on count day was circulated to the participants. Everyone must have thought I was a flaming fruitcake. Of course, birders are a polite bunch, and I never heard any snickers or complaints. Only 88 species were located on the count, which was exactly the same number of species the previous year, all done without my help.

My belief that a well-organized Christmas Count could produce a higher species total was not quelled. Jimmy Hicks, who had been running the Medford count once Tom left, told me he thought the species total should be 100. Ever the optimist, I thought, based on my scouting before count day, the Medford count could have been hovering around 114. Being off by 26 species did not discourage me.

The next count would be better. I began scouting the areas in the count circle in late October 1964 and discovered a few species not always found in the valley. Eared Grebe and Canvasback were not bad potential count birds as was a late Osprey in mid-November and a Williamson’s Sapsucker on Roxy Ann would be a miracle bird if it stayed for count day. More waterfowl, including a Red-breasted Merganser seen by three Rogue Birders added to the excitement meter, as did a Horned Grebe and Horned Lark. Despite all the horns, the uncommon ducks and late Osprey, I worried about the count. Luckily, more participants joined on 2 January 1965 to provide a better coverage of the circle. Jimmy and I felt the coverage was sufficient for us to what I call free-lance. That meant we independently cruised around in the circle wherever we thought might need extra eyes and where and when we thought might produce just one more species.

It is impossible to know why the January 1965 count yielded more species than in all previous Medford counts. Dividends from the practice of free-lancing paid handsomely with a handful of species missed by the parties’ assigned specific regions of the circle. Planning surely helped as did more participants. Weather, whatever the reasons, we hit 100.

The Medford count could not go back; it would not experience the embarrassing total below the century mark. The people of the count continued to raise the bar to 125, 128, over 130, without my help. In fact, the January 1965 count would be my last Medford count for many years.

It would be an unbelievable hiatus before once again slogging the mud and peering through the fog on a Medford Christmas Count. Then, 40 years later in 2005, I rejoined the circle, this time with a new cast of participants. There were 35 of us and we managed 139 species. My party, Linda and I, found at least a couple of species no one else found, but the entire group of participants were mostly good birders. That count was a nostalgic experience and I have not missed counting Rogue birds on a Christmas count since.

Meanwhile, back in mid-1960’s, college was too demanding, taxing my birdbrain and requiring more study and fewer birds. Once school was history, I found myself in San Diego at the request of the government, so to speak. It would have been a time to join the San Diego Christmas Count, whose participants have now broken the 200 species barrier. However, my lugubrious mood during the indentured stint in San Diego and a Christmas Bird Count there seemed unfathomable.

Not long after, actually four years later, and settling in my day job at the National Museum of Natural History at Smithsonian, I joined a local count. The party consisted of Marshall Howe, then director of the bird section of the National Biological Survey, Richard Zusi, curator in the Division of birds, another male whose name escapes me. Dick Zusi was a long time member of our party whose job was to scour open fields and woodlots along a frigid section of the Potomac River. Winter wind blowing down the river was usually so cold it froze our jaws, making it impossible to talk and even gloved hands failed to keep fingers warm enough to tally the birds. The lubricant of our binocular focus wheels was virtually hardened as we looked for American Tree Sparrows and anything else that could possibly tolerate the unbearable boreal climate. At least it was not as cold as some counts I have read about, those with numbing temperatures when the whole count records only five species representing three individuals.

All that cold, foggy, rainy, icy, horrible weather might contribute to fewer participants recording fewer species and individual birds. The weather variable, the factor of the number of participants all are a part of attempting to arrive at the meaning of a Christmas Bird counters life. Whatever the numerous variables were that contributed to that high species on the Medford count on 2 January 1965 is not completely apparent. I was not the only one wondering what was going on, what the Christmas Count data meant, how the data could be useful to monitor populations, changes in distribution, and ultimately use the database as a tool for conservation of birds. People began attempting to remove bias from the raw data of numbers of individuals. For example, based on the number of party miles, were there more or less individuals of a given species? Incidentally, party miles is the miles of a party, not the total miles of each individual within a party and is totally unrelated to an individuals or party‘s level of fun. Essentially, a party might be one set of collective eyes. Party miles are by vehicle, by foot and sometimes-other modes such as watercraft. Then, there is the factor of party hours. How many party hours does it take to produce “x number of Mallards.” Obviously, more hours searching a count circle will yield more species and more individuals, usually. Party hours are also a better measure to remove some of the bias of observers. After all, a person who careens around the circle thereby racking up lots of miles driven will not see more birds, usually. There are other factors such as experience of the crewmembers and of course, weather. Fog has dampened several Medford counts and a strong Potomac wind has not only caused birds to lay low, but has also not added wind to the sails of the party trying to count the birds. Of course, all these variable issues and ones I have not thought of are not definite determinates of count results. The factors may usually be important, and that is what anyone studying birds on a lark or someone with a well-designed protocol grinding away at a study must remember. What happens is only usually.

Christmas Bird Counts originated over 100 years ago. Medford’s Christmas counting began in 1953 with about a half dozen people. Since then the number of participants has grown to. Last year the Medford count sacked 124 species 41609 individuals. That is not bad. The first Medford count recorded 45 species and 634 individuals. The next year, 1954, Medford reported only 44 species and almost 22,000 individuals were counted. Apparently, somebody forgot that you count individuals that first year. Of course, populations do have their ups and downs. Medford hit 100 species, with 58,442 individual birds. The following year the count dropped to 97 and only close to 14,000 birds. The difference was 35,000 American Robins and thousands of blackbirds. Biology is not always predictable.

What does the information on years of Christmas Counts mean? The database is now considerable. The number of Christmas Count Circles has grown from only 25 in 1900 to 2113 in 2008 and the word in Rogue country is that Alan Contraras is going to start a new one in Ashland this coming winter. More and more people are joining counts, with 27 participants in 1900 to 59,918 in 2008. An average of 28 birders are diligently counting birds in their 15 mile diameter circle in the United States, Canada and elsewhere from Pacific islands to South America. A few ornithologists think the data is too random, not standardized sufficiently to draw any meaningful conclusions about bird populations. However, thanks especially to computers, data from Christmas Bird Counts are often regarded as a useful tool for monitoring bird populations and the majority of number crunchers consider the data one of the most important contributions of birders to the science of birds. The data set is enormous, but new and more data is in order. Having participated in Christmas Counts in disparate geographic areas and over a period of forty some years, I have to agree with my former museum and Christmas Count colleague, Marshall Howe. He and coauthors wrote in volume 122 of the Auk in 2005 that methods of data collecting and reporting Christmas Count data require improvement. The “manual” for compilers now occupies 6.5 pages of instructions compared to two pages in my two compiler years. Most of the concerns and recommendations for improvement remain addressing. Perhaps it depends on the count, on the compiler and their lieutenants, but I really have not noticed much difference in protocol. Some counts still spish, use tape playback and even use birdseed to bait potential sparrows out of the bush. No harm, now fowl. There are some birders out there who would never use playback, probably not chum for seabirds, since such human behaviors upset a bird’s behavior. Maybe, but some owl, sitting silently on a cold winter tree limb will most probably go undetected if not aroused to answer a tape of its species. Call me cruel. Call me curious. My guess is a stricter Christmas Count protocol would not be a good thing. If the counts become too marshaled, I wonder how many participants would contribute their cold feet and fingers, empty stomachs, wet and muddy clothing to counting birds on a cold winter day. Some would gladly even cough up the $5.00 fee to participate. I probably would, although even if the fee is 1,000% higher than in the 1960’s. The increase is almost the same as the cost of gasoline per gallon. The lure of birds, with cold feet and mud has not changed, and most of us ignore the higher cost of doing business, especially it if the business is fun.

As a Rogue Birder and an ornithologist, I worry about the utility of Christmas Count data, but know that some of the rough edges have contributed to a better understanding of distribution and to conservation. For example, data from Christmas Counts revealed declines in many species including Nuttall’s Woodpeckers and eastern populations of Bewick’s Wrens. No, Nuttall’s Woodpeckers are not declining because everyone that has set foot in Oregon became a specimen. That is a rumor and another story. In Rogue country Christmas Count data has revealed that our Bewick’s Wrens are holding their own and population fluctuations in Varied Thrushes, Lewis’s Woodpecker and many more including Kestrels that are having ups and downs across the country.

A species with declining numbers in Rogue country was the Swainson’s Hawk. In fact, Christmas Count sightings of this summer hawk were popping up on numerous counts across the United States. Finally, I could not take it any longer and set out to collect hard data to determine the winter status of Swainson’s Hawk. To make a long story short, my results appeared in American Birds (formerly Audubon Field Notes, now North American Birds) in 1974. I looked at specimens and banding recoveries. One borrowed specimen identified by the lending museum as a Swainson’s Hawk was not that species. I concluded that less that 18% of winter reported Swainson’s Hawks are believable. Of course that meant contrary to the 5th edition of the AOU Check-list, the big blue book, was likewise incorrect since Swainson’s wintering distribution is not restricted to Argentina. Was I going Rogue? Certainly, the status quo had been challenged. Of course, that is science for you. What historically was usually true required some tweaking. As for Swainson’s Hawks seen on Medford and other Christmas Counts, funny, the species suddenly went missing.

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