Area bird watchers up for the Christmas Bird Count

Inland Northwest birders are among thousands in roughly 2,000 localities across North America and beyond who will be flocking together in the next few weeks for the 112th annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

New birders are invited to join avid birdwatchers on more than a dozen counts that are being organized within 100 miles of Spokane.

Each volunteer group will count for one day between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5 in a designated circle 15 miles in diameter.

Area Audubon groups offer 10 counts on four days during that period. Some birders join in more than one.

The count began on Christmas 1900 in 25 eastern localities where groups publicized the pleasure of identifying, counting and recording all the birds they saw.

Apart from its main attraction as a social and competitive event, the databases generated by online reporting have boosted the Christmas count’s value in generating a “snapshot” and monitoring the long-term status of resident and migratory birds across the Western Hemisphere, National Audubon officers said.

The data reported by volunteers are combined with more scientific survey methods to help ornithologists study myriad issues, such as the magnitude of West Nile virus and climate change.

However, some area birders wonder if the trend toward regular Internet filing of birding observations might make the big fling of the Christmas Bird Count obsolete.

The online forums eBird compiles what a lot of people are seeing every day of the year, said Terry Gray, an ardent Moscow birder who canceled the 2010 CBC outing he’d organized in Lewiston for lack of interest.

The eBird website, sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, has revolutionized the way birdwatchers report and accesses information about birds with a real-time, online checklist.

Launched in 2002 and vastly improved since then, eBird electronically compiles data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution at a variety of spatial and temporal scales.

The work is done by a vast network of volunteers across North America.

But Spokane Audubon member Kim Thorburn says the Christmas Bird Count is a different methodology with a 111-year history for comparisons.

And it’s hard to beat traditions and social contact among birders, she said.

More than 2,100 groups are expected to count birds the old-fashioned way during this year’s Christmas Bird Count using binoculars and their ears to tally around 60 million birds.

Idahoans have been participating since 1914, when the state’s first Christmas Bird Count was organized in Moscow, said Shirley Sturts of Audubon’s Coeur d’Alene chapter.

New birders are always welcome to join the counts, said Alan McCoy, the local chapter coordinator of groups that will be heading out on Jan. 2 for the Spokane count.

Local count coordinators enter their survey data into Audubon’s website, where computer systems almost instantly compile results for comparison to past years.

The Christmas-season event has long been a way for birders to connect, from programs before trips to potlucks following the counts.

The Coeur d’Alene groups hold a scouting trip before the event and wrap up their Dec. 17 count with a potluck “when it’s too dark to bird anymore, and the hunger pangs are too strong to ignore,” Sturts said.

Participation is a feather in their caps and a fixture of the holiday season.

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