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Levin: The Annual Christmas Bird Count

On December 15, I joined twenty-four other birders in Woodstock for the forty-second, Annual Christmas Bird Count. Collectively, we recorded twenty-five hundred and nineteen birds, representing thirty-five different species. Except for the opening day of deer season, perhaps no other outdoors event is more anticipated, and well attended than the annual Christmas Bird Count - even in miserable weather.

The first-ever count took place on Christmas morning 1900. It was the brainchild of Frank Chapman, curator of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, and twenty-five counts ran that day from Central Park to California, which were collectively attended by twenty-seven intrepid birders.

Chapman wanted an alternative to the traditional holiday “Side Hunt,” where teams of mostly men and boys shot every bird and mammal they encountered - lumping bluebirds and robins in the same category as badgers and deer. Nothing was sacred.

Today, the Christmas Bird Count has grown into the largest citizen science project in the nation - if not the world. More than seventy five thousand birders participate in nearly two thousand, four hundred events across the Western Hemisphere, for a tally of both the total number of species seen or heard, as well as total number of individuals of each species. In 2014, nearly sixty-nine million birds representing more than twenty-one hundred species were counted.

Through the years, the Christmas Bird Counts have documented population trends of native birds - both range expansions and contractions - as well as periodic irruptions of boreal and arctic birds like crossbills and snowy owls into the northern states and temperate birds like robins and tree swallows into southern states.

The historic importance of the Christmas Bird Count cannot be overstated. The Environmental Protection Agency uses trends documented in the counts as one of its twenty-six indications of climate change, noting, for example, that the range of short-eared owls has shrunk, while that of red-bellied woodpeckers has expanded.

Of the two coolest things I saw that day, neither had feathers.

As I was standing at the edge of a remote marsh, the northern sky suddenly darkened and congealed into a big-flaked whiteout with a roaring wind that dropped an inch of snow in fifteen minutes.

The other was a busy mink hunting along a shoreline, where it slipped into the water twice - then resurfaced to resume its frenetic pace.]

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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