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NATURE HAPPENINGS - December 2008

The Moab Christmas Bird Count
by Damian Fagan

The annual Christmas Bird Count will be held on January 3 in Moab. Akin to the Super Bowl for football fans, the CBC, as it is affectionately known, is the annual event for birders. During this count, birdwatchers scatter like a covey of quail across parks, wetlands, residential areas, and along the river to record all the birds that they identify by sight and sound. And like a football team’s injury report, birders also have their “stat page” listing birds as Expected, Probable and Questionable. You might not see many chest bumps, but high-fives for good sightings are common.

Over 55,000 people are expected to join in this longest running data collection program in the United States. “Last year we had 42 participants in 14 different groups,” said Marcy Hafner, Moab’s CBC compiler. “We had a total of 72 species and that included four species picked up during count week. The weather on count day was overcast, windy and damp.”

This year’s count - from December 14, 2008 through January 5, 2009 – will be the count’s 109th anniversary. Hopefully, the weather will be better than it was in 2007.

So what does this citizen-science program reveal? The sheer volume of data provides a better understanding of winter avian distribution and status conditions of bird populations in “early winter” in mostly urban areas. This time period represents the last stage of winter migration, where birds that are present will probably be in the area for winter. In addition, count numbers may reflect local habitat changes or environmental threats on a larger scale.

The idea for this event was hatched during the turn-of-the-century as a nonconsumptive way to enjoy birds around the Christmas holidays. Organized by Frank Chapman of the then fledgling Audubon Society, this affair was a sharp contrast to what was called the ASide Hunt,@ a daylong excursion whose participants attempted to shoot more birds than their competitors. The original CBC was known as the “Christmas Bird Census” and this count was a radical departure from the normal shotgun outing.

At the turn of the century, bird watchers were mostly older and fairly well off. Their interest in nature had an Elizabethan air to it. The birders were considered odder than the birds. I’m sure there were reports of “peeping Toms,” someone scanning a residential yard and mistaken for their activity. The first count had 27 participants counting birds in 25 different locations from Massachusetts to Monterey, California. Their total of 90 species represented the hatching of the CBC.

So what happens during a CBC? At an initial organizational meeting, team leaders are assigned to cover different sections of the count area. In turn, the leader forms a team with three or four other individuals. The organizer distributes data sheets and maps to the team leaders. Depending upon the area to be counted, teams will either venture out early on count day or meet for a round of hot drinks before they embark on the day’s adventure.

Moab’s count area is a circle with a 15-mile diameter centered on Shrimp Rock in the Sand Flats Recreational Area. The area contains a variety of habitats from wetlands to canyons, riparian to pinyon-juniper woodlands, residential to industrial areas. Through this terrain the teams walk, drive, bike, wade, or wander in search of towhees and sparrows, hawks and harriers, buffleheads and redheads. Someone is designated as the recorder and they fill out the data sheets and tally the numbers. If an unusual or unlikely species is sighted, additional forms are completed to rule out confusion with more common species. Plastic flamingos do not count.

The day after the count, a potluck brunch will be held at The Nature Conservancy’s office on Kane Creek Boulevard at 10:00 a.m. to total the results. Like the Super Bowl, there is a laundry list of “stats” to record and analyze. Rare species are envied and unusual sightings are discussed. For species missed during Count Day or the three days previous, members have another three days to locate them as “Count Week” birds.

The CBC is open to all interested individuals from novice to professional. The $5 fee goes to publication of the results. The Moab group organizes participants by ability and desire, so there are mixed flocks of birders from beginners to more experienced individuals. The rewards are many and, unlike the Super Bowl, the competition is friendly. To participate in the Moab count, contact Marcy Hafner at 259-6197.

 

Red Tailed Hawk

Canada goose

Great horned owl

Mourning dove

House finch

 
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