This article originally appeared in Citizen Times.
ASHEVILLE - If the maddening rush and crush of Christmas shopping and holiday merry-making has got you feeling beat down, it’s the perfect time to stop and take a few minutes to look up, and out, and all around.
It’s time for the 116th National Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count, which officially began Dec. 14 and runs through Jan. 5.
During the count, more than 72,000 volunteers from more than 2,400 locations across the Western Hemisphere record sightings of bird species with the data collected and submitted to Audubon for research on bird populations and environmental conditions.
Birders in Asheville and Western North Carolina take part each year, either in informal counts or on guided bird walks with clubs like the Henderson County Bird Club, Balsam Bird Club and the Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society, based in Asheville, which will hold its official count on Jan. 2.
“It’s the time of year when the fall migration is finished, the summer warblers have gone and most of the winter birds are here,” said Doug Johnston, a birder and former Elisha Mitchell Board member.
“It’s the same idea as the Great Backyard Bird Count (held by the National Audubon Society in February). It gives you a snapshot of what birds are here at this time of year, and what trends are happening.”
Johnston said the idea for the original Christmas Bird Count grew from a rather gruesome tradition.
“In the early Audubon days, there was a tradition called a ‘side hunt,’ where hunters would go out the day after Christmas and see how many birds they could shoot. So the Audubon folks decided to have a ‘counter hunt,’ to go out and see how many birds they could count instead of shoot. But it’s become useful for data.”
Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count is considered the longest running wildlife census. Each winter, citizen scientists gather in 15-mile-wide circles, organized by a count compiler, and count every bird they see or hear. Their hard work provides valuable insights into population trends for many species that would otherwise go unnoticed and undocumented.
“New tools, including apps, smartphones and map-based technologies, are making it easier than ever for anyone to be a citizen scientist,” Audubon president and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement. “People who watch birds are seeing changes. By recording all those observations, they’re contributing the information that’s needed to make a difference. I couldn’t be prouder of the volunteers who contribute each year.”
More than 200 peer-reviewed articles have resulted from analysis done with Christmas Bird Count data. Bird-related citizen science efforts are also critical to understanding how birds are responding to a changing climate and have enabled Audubon scientists to discover that 314 species of North American birds are threatened by global warming as reported in Audubon’s groundbreaking Birds and Climate Change Study.
The count continues to grow, with a record-breaking year in 2014, when a total of 2,462 counts and 72,653 observers tallied more than 68 million birds of 2,106 different species.
Counts took place in all 50 states, all Canadian provinces and more than 100 count circles in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. Four counts took place in Cuba and new counts in Mexico, Nicaragua and Colombia partook for the first time.
Snowy owl numbers were once again above average, though mostly appearing north and west of the year before with record highs for Ontario. It was the largest influx ever documented on the Christmas Bird Count in Canada, and very unusual for it to happen for four consecutive years.
Researchers are anxious to see what happens next as “snowies” begin to make early winter visits in Minnesota and the Midwest this year. The tradition of counting birds combined with modern technology and mapping is enabling researchers to make discoveries that were not possible in earlier decades.
In the Asheville area, Christmas bird counters can expect to spot between 70-80 species in total, Johnston said.
“The cardinals, blue jays, chickadees are here year-round, so you can expect to see them,” Johnston said. “But the juncos and sparrows come in for the winter and warblers like the yellow-rumped warbler winter here in small numbers. And you can expect the ducks, of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a pond handy.”
If you live farther west in WNC, check out the 13th annual Balsam Christmas Bird Count, which will be Jan. 3 near Waynesville. Organized by compiler Don Hendershot, the center of the 15-mile radius is on Pinnacle Road just off Old Balsam Road near Barber’s Orchard.
“We extend eastward toward Asheville to Raccoon Road and the Mountain Research Station (Test Farm). We extend west to Balsam Mountain Preserve — it extends north to Cataloochee Ranch and Soco Gap and south to Lake Logan,” Hendershot said.
The circle is broken down further into smaller count areas with groups under the leadership of experienced birders responsible for each area.
“Our high count is 77 species and our low count is 63 — our average is around 67. Rare species through the years have included yellow-headed blackbird, tanager species (last year) and cackling goose,” he said.
“With Lake Junaluska, Lake Logan and the Waynesville Watershed reservoir it’s not uncommon for the Balsam count to produce 10-12 species of waterfowl. A mixture of farmland, urban and suburban landscape and forests ensure that the count is representative of the types of habitat found in the area.”
After a strenuous day of straining through binoculars, the Balsam bird count winds down at dark and counters congregate at Bocelli’s Italian Restaurant, to dine and combine all the section leaders’ lists to get the official species tally for the day.
“The Audubon CBC is a wonderful combination of citizen science and camaraderie; birders of all skill levels are welcome,” Hendershot said.
The Audubon Christmas Bird Count is a citizen science project organized by the National Audubon Society. There is no fee to participate and the quarterly report, American Birds, is available online. Counts are open to birders of all skill levels and Audubon’s free Bird Guide app makes it even easier to chip in.
Following are Christmas Bird Counts:
Go take a bird walk
The following are regularly scheduled bird walks, free to the public.
Black Mountain Bird Walk: The Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society has canceled this week's bird walk. They will meet again at 9:00 a.m. on Jan. 16, at Lake Tomahawk in Black Mountain.
Fletcher Park Bird Walk: Hosted by the Henderson County Bird Club, meet 9-11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, at Fletcher Community Park off Howard Gap Road. Visit www.fletcherparks.org for directions.
EMAS Christmas Bird Count: Meets Jan. 2. Visit www.emasnc.org for details.
Balsam Christmas Bird Count: Meets Jan. 3 on Pinnacle Road near Barber’s Orchard in Balsam. For more information, contact Balsam compiler Don Hendershot at email@example.com or at 828-646-0871.