Down East birders count for annual Audubon

Posted Dec. 26, 2009, at 3:55 p.m.
William Kolodnicki of Calais carefully counts sea birds Saturday at Campobello Island, N.B., during the Down East annual Audubon Christmas bird count. Thousands of participants across the country record birds during a two-week span over the Christmas and New Year holiday. Researchers use the data to track migration patterns, climate change and other issues that would affect bird populations. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY SHARON KILEY MACK
William Kolodnicki of Calais carefully counts sea birds Saturday at Campobello Island, N.B., during the Down East annual Audubon Christmas bird count. Thousands of participants across the country record birds during a two-week span over the Christmas and New Year holiday. Researchers use the data to track migration patterns, climate change and other issues that would affect bird populations. BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY SHARON KILEY MACK

CAMPOBELLO ISLAND, New Brunswick — On the tip of Campobello Island, bird-watchers Maurice Mills, of Eastport, and William Kolodnicki, of Calais, peer through binoculars as birds, accompanied by a lone seal, swirl in a feeding frenzy.

“Wow!” Kolodnicki exclaims as he spots two northern gannets — white seabirds with 6½-foot wingspans — unusual birds to see on this island in the middle of the Bay of Fundy. He watches through the lens as a gannet dives from 30 feet in the air, wings tucked back, at speeds up to 100 mph.

Mills writes the find down in his yellow notebook, indicating the date, time and location.

The wind whips off the ocean, unraveling scarves and turning the men’s cheeks red.

Overhead, five herring gulls coast on air currents, keeping a close eye on the visitors.

Mills and Kolodnicki are two of thousands of volunteer birders spending a day counting ducks, gulls and other birds for the U.S. Audubon Society’s 110th annual Christmas Bird Count, the world’s longest-running wildlife census.

The pair have picked an excellent spot to do their bit. Campobello lies on the Atlantic flyway and is a convenient stopover for thousands of shorebirds and other migratory species.

“Seventy razorbills,” Mills calls out and jots the count in his notebook.

Kolodnicki points out a small group of red-breasted mergansers swimming near an abandoned weir.

“Some years there are so many gulls between here and Eastport that you practically couldn’t see the water,” Mills said.

Throughout the Eastport to Lubec area, teams of counters were busy all day Saturday.

“We had about seven people,” Mills said. “The species count was normal to above normal at 61, but the bird count seems to be down a bit.”

Mills said he has always been interested in birds and likes participating in the count.

The surveys provide information about broad trends in bird numbers, migration patterns and the effects of climate change. The data collected by Mills and his team will be compiled with those of thousands of other counters by researchers at Cornell University in New York.

The Audubon Christmas Count was started on Christmas Day 1900 as an alternative to the traditional holiday “side hunt,” in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds. Instead of hunting, bird-watchers counted the birds they saw, according to the Audubon Society.

Today, almost 55,000 volunteers from all 50 states, every Canadian province, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and Pacific islands will count and record every individual bird and bird species seen during one 24-hour calendar day.

About 1,800 individual counts will be held. Each group has a designated circle 15 miles in diameter — about 177 square miles — where they try to cover as much ground as possible within one day. The count runs from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5.

Jay Adams, of Augusta, coordinated a team of 29 volunteers from his area on Dec. 19.

“It was very cold and breezy, which tends to keep the little birds hidden,” he said, “and the cold snap froze all the open bodies of water.” Still, he said, 52 different species were noted including a surprising brown thrasher found in Pittston.

“That is the first time since 1972 that particular species was on our count,” Adams said. “It should have migrated already.”

Adams said that finding such an unusual bird is what keeps the counters motivated.

“It’s not just tallying the birds,” he said. “It’s finding and adding an unusual bird that keeps everyone excited.”

The data are used to assess the health of bird populations and to help guide conservation actions.

“Last year, partly because of the information in our bird counts, a study was compiled that documented the effects of day length and temperature on birds. The study reported that migrations are being influenced by fluctuating temperatures as well as the ranges of various species,” said Patty Reilly, who counts in the Jonesport area.

Bets Brown, who has been organizing the bird count in the Waterville area for 12 years, said that this year they counted in early December and had 11 teams of both field and feeder watchers.

“It was 10 degrees below normal,” Brown said, “but overall it was pretty good. We had some unusual species, including a northern shrike, rusty blackbird, a greater scaup and an eastern phoebe, who should have been long gone by now.”

Brown said she feels like a volunteer scientist and is proud that the data collected are important environmental information.

“I find that rewarding,” she said.

Some of the bird outings still to be held include:

— Bangor-Bucksport, Saturday, Jan. 2, Jerry Smith, 825-4920 or jerrya_smith@yahoo.com.

— Dennysville-Pembroke, Saturday, Jan. 2, Maurice Mills, 726-4494 or mills8111@roadrunner.com.

— Greater Deer Isle, Saturday, Jan. 2, Tom Bjorkman, 374-3644 or tom@bluehillfalls.org.

— North Penobscot Bay, Saturday, Jan. 2, Seth Benz 338-0940.

— Biddeford-Kennebunkport, Saturday, Jan. 2, Marie Jordan, 799-1408 or mijord@maine.rr.com.

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