SPOKANE, Wash. — Numbers aren’t the only focus of the annual Christmas Bird Count.
The event was founded in 1900 in New York to urge a change in what was then a socially accepted practice of killing birds – all kinds of birds – as a way of seeing what species are out there, or were.
The idea of a count brought people together with binoculars instead of guns.
Organized by the National Audubon Society, the 117th CBC will kick off next week across the country and beyond with numerous single-day count outings scheduled by local birders in the Inland Northwest.
The Spokane Audubon count is one of about 40 in Washington. More than 30 are scheduled in Idaho, including three organized by the active Coeur d’Alene chapter.
All of those eyeballs scouring the landscape through binoculars turn up something new every year on local counts as well as rare sightings, according to reports filed by group leaders.
Local Audubon chapters have scheduled programs this week to help birders understand birding trends and to identify and understand birds that frequent this region in winter.
They also invite newcomers to join groups of birders that survey 15-mile diameter circles on designated days between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5.
A colossal database has been compiled in 116 years of number keeping by compulsive birders as interest in the annual event has spread.
The 2016 Christmas Bird Count set overall records for turnout – 76,669 volunteers participating in 2,505 group counts across North America, Latin America, Bermuda and the Pacific Islands.
They tallied a total of 58.9 million birds, down from the record 68.8 million birds counted in 2015. But diversity in the count was up in 2016, with 2,607 species tallied -roughly one-quarter of the world’s known avifauna.
The Inland Northwest is rich with bird species, but the CBC helps put the numbers in perspective.
The 78 participants in the 2016 Spokane Christmas Bird Count, which is limited to a 15-mile circle from the intersection of Division and Francis, listed 87 bird species, according to local compiler Alan McCoy.
A large group of birders contributing to the Kootenai County, Idaho, “big year” count work 12 months to identify about 210 species.
But a single 2016 Christmas bird count in the important December habitat of Yanayacu, Ecuador, tallied 509 species. That count reinforces the importance of critical habitat in specific locations, experts say.
Group leaders who file data also report details that help researchers monitor trends.
Last year’s severe, long-term El Niño event wreaked havoc in the northwestern Pacific Ocean, with warm ocean temperatures altering the food chain for marine creatures and resulting in huge die-offs of seabirds, especially common murres. Storm after storm pummeled the Pacific Northwest coast, affecting birds and bird counters.
Regardless of the weather, Inland Northwest birders plan to be out in the thick of the action again to help scientists get a snapshot of winter bird distribution.
“Scientists tend to be more interested in the trends rather than the numbers and species of a single count,” said Gary Blevins, Spokane Audubon member and biology professor at Spokane Falls Community College.
Because the circles that are surveyed aren’t moved once they’re established, surveys over decades help chart trends in those circles, such as the impacts of urbanization, he said.
For example, birds that need bigger expanses of forest land, such as the white-breasted nuthatch, appear to be declining in the Spokane count, he said.
Meanwhile, the red-breasted and pygmy nuthatches are doing better, indicating that they are better suited to tolerating the urban development that’s fragmenting habitat at the outer reaches of the survey area.
While trends intrigue the scientists, the thrill for the counters boils down to being out there counting ducks and robins and knowing that you have a shot at seeing a rare bird that will stand out on a life list.
Most of all, Christmas Bird Count veterans say, the annual census that gives experienced birders a platform to involve newcomers in citizen science.
It’s a social event centered around the beauty and conservation of birds, which most counters agree is as important as the numbers.
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