I’m bored. Bored. Bored. Bored.
This year marks the 116th anniversary of the first Christmas Bird Count. I’ve participated many times, but not recently. There are only so many times I can count the same chickadees. I crave newness. I’m thinking about straying.
The Christmas Bird Count has a peculiar origin. In the 19th century, sportsmen celebrated Christmas Day with a “side hunt.” Hunters would choose up sides, head into the field and shoot everything in sight. At the end of the day, they weighed the piles of dead animals. The biggest pile won.
Frank M. Chapman was America’s most popular bird guy in his day. He pioneered the writing of field guides with the “Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America,” published in 1895. It was Chapman who came up with the idea for the Christmas Bird Count. He suggested a method for counting birds alive rather than dead. The first count occurred in 1900 when 27 birders took to the field, tallying every bird they could find. Last year, 72,653 people participated.
Counts take place within circles, each with a diameter of 15 miles. Volunteers survey pre-assigned routes. This prevents multiple participants from counting the same birds twice. It doesn’t prevent the same birds from getting counted twice if they happen to fly to another route. Missed birds and double-counted birds are inevitable. That’s the beauty of a survey so gargantuan. Minor variations are lost in all that megadata.
The vast quantity of information generated by 72,000 citizen-scientists has proven to be invaluable in identifying long term trends. Over the century, we’ve watched southern birds such as cardinals march northward. We’ve watched northern birds, such as evening grosbeaks, recede.
More recently, we’ve begun noticing changes to the timing of migration. Last year’s count demonstrated that common birds, such as the black-throated green warbler, aren’t in such a big rush to get south for the winter. More are lingering. Every scarlet tanager and Swainson’s thrush should be in the tropics by Christmas, but some are now being tallied on holiday counts, even in Canada.
Still, try as I might, I can’t get excited about counting 57 black-capped chickadees along my usual assigned route. Long before the day’s last nuthatch is tallied, I’m yearning to rush home for some televised football. I need to rekindle the romance, perhaps by counting somebody else’s chickadees.
There are 32 count circles listed on the Maine Audubon website, including two in the Bangor area: http://maineaudubon.org/birding/christmas-bird-count/. The Orono-Old Town count is scheduled for Dec. 19. The Bangor-Bucksport count is planned for Saturday, Jan. 2. Jerry Smith is the compiler for both counts, and he needs lots of help, especially in Orono.
Predictably, all of the state’s well-populated areas have counts. I suppose I could make a weekend out of it in Portland, bar hopping at night, bird counting by day. However, I’ve got my eye on several counts that are off the beaten track. Bill Sheehan coordinates counts in Caribou and Presque Isle, where the increased chances for a snowy owl on my route could get me excited about counting Aroostook chickadees.
At the very least, odds improve for shrikes, crossbills and grosbeaks up in The County.
Bill Townsend compiles the Schoodic Point Christmas Count. That one will happen on New Year’s Day.
Sure, I’d still have to count tons of chickadees, but all those countable sea birds would spice things up. Plus, the new campground has opened up areas never before surveyed.
Medea Steinman manages the Hog Bay Christmas Bird Count. That could be fun, if I can figure out where Hog Bay is. Franklin, I think? That’s the beauty of joining a different bird count. Routes are assigned by people who know what they’re doing. All I would need to do is adhere to a map, something I learned in Boy Scouts decades ago.
Maybe this is the year I’ll go completely nuts and join Jeff Wells for his Christmas Bird Count on Matinicus. Every January, a small group crowds onto a Cessna in Rockland and flies over to the remote island on what is inevitably the coldest day of the year. Since the whole island is smaller than a 15-mile circle, the team explores together, tallying the normal winter residents and any other bird that has gotten really, really lost.
The count season starts this Monday, with most counts scheduled on weekends through New Year’s Day. Pick one near or far. There are chickadees that need counting.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.