About 25 years or so ago, my wife and I took part in our first Christmas bird count. We were assigned an area within the urban boundary of Ottawa, and when the big day dawned, clear and cold, we pulled on our warmest boots and headed out to find some birds. Nowadays, we take part in 2 Christmas bird counts near where we currently live – the Westport and Sharbot Lakes Christmas Bird Counts.
Christmas bird counts go back to 1900, when American ornithologist Frank Chapman asked birders across North America to head out on Christmas Day to count the birds in their home towns and submit the results as the first "Christmas Bird Census." The Christmas Bird Count, as it is now called (and often shortened to “CBC”), is conducted in over 2000 localities across Canada, the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean.
These days Christmas Bird Counts are conducted on any one day between December 14 and January 5. They are carried out within a 24-km diameter circle that stays the same from year to year. They are usually group events organized at the local level, usually by a birding club, naturalists’ organization or simply an enthusiastic group of volunteers. Volunteers participate in one of two ways – field observers cover a portion of the count circle on their own or with a small group, counting all birds they find. Feeder watchers count birds at their feeders for a portion of the day.
On the chosen day, teams have 24 hours to go out and identify and count every bird they see in their assigned sector of the circle. At the end of the day, the numbers from all the sectors are compiled, and this information is submitted to Bird Studies Canada, the sponsoring organization in Canada. This data has proven to be very valuable in helping scientists better understand important things like bird distribution and movements and population trends over time.
Our big day for the Westport CBC was Tuesday December 20th. Maps, guidebooks and binoculars in hand, my wife and I walked and drove the highways and byways between Westport and Bolingbroke in search of birds. The weather was good, starting off at about minus 10 degrees early in the morning, but reaching a very pleasant (for December) high of about zero in the afternoon, with no snow in the air but a good cover on the ground. We had a productive day, tallying about 190 birds covering 17 different species. Our highlight was a flock of about 110 Snow Buntings feeding on dry goldenrod seed heads poking up through the snow in a roadside field just north of Westport. Our second most common bird was, unsurprisingly, Black-capped Chickadees with 28. The most unusual results were a couple of American Robins near a beaver dam and an almost total lack of Blue Jays – we racked up a grand total of 1 Blue Jay on our travels. Normally Blue Jays rank among the most numerous birds tallied in this area. Wendy Briggs-Jude, the coordinator of the Westport CBC tabulated the results from all the counters, and reported that over 2800 birds of 36 species were counted.
The Sharbot Lake CBC was held in the past, but had stopped some time ago. Last year the count was revived by coordinator Andrew Keaveney, making this year’s count, held on January 5, the second consecutive recent count for this circle. The weather was a little colder on this day than for the Westport count, with a high of about minus 5 and light snow falling pretty much all day. My count partner and I started off the day by walking a very lightly-travelled road, stopping at prospective groves of cedars and pines to scan the trees and adjacent fields and to listen for birds. We then spent several hours driving most of the public roads within our assigned territory, scanning open water for waterfowl and stopping by birdfeeders to add to our totals of woodpeckers, chickadees and other feeder birds. My wife was in charge of counting the birds at the birdfeeder at our house, which happily falls within our assigned area. I ended my birding day with a walk around our house listening for owls to add our daily total, but it seems that our resident Barred Owls had taken the night off from calling.
Our tallies for Sharbot Lake were lower than for the Westport CBC, but still respectable. We spotted 79 birds from 10 different species, with chickadees and Wild Turkeys coming in first and second, respectively. 25 years ago it would have been big news to see a Wild Turkey, but not anymore. Wild Turkeys have moved into our area and decided that they quite like it here (who would argue with that?), breeding successfully in substantial numbers. The final results for the full Sharbot Lake count area were 874 birds of 24 species. Perhaps the highlight was a flock of over 200 Bohemian Waxwings feeding in ornamental fruit trees in the town of Sharbot Lake.
A third Christmas count in the Land o’ Lakes is the Frontenac CBC, consisting of a circle which is roughly centred on Frontenac Provincial Park and includes the towns of Sydenham and Verona. Although only in its second season, this year’s December 17 count drew 25 participants who tallied 2,256 individual birds from 37 different species. An abundance of eagles (15 – including one Golden Eagle) were rewarding sightings for several field surveyors. Two Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, a species whose range has been slowly extending north, were observed at feeders in Sydenham and Verona.
For me, participating in Christmas Bird Counts is a bit like a treasure hunt – it’s exciting to seek out new species to add to the daily tally or to come across a big group of interesting birds like the 110 Snow Buntings we spotted north of Westport. I also get a good deal of satisfaction knowing that our effort and the data we collect is helping to paint a continent-wide picture of the status of our winter birds. For these reasons I hope to be able to keep doing Christmas Bird Counts for many years to come.