Audubon Society – 110th Annual Christmas Bird Count

DEB PETERSON
Bulletin Staff Writer

Billed as the “world’s longest-running uninterrupted bird census” by the
National Audubon Society, the 110th annual Christmas Bird Count starts in
Baxter County at midnight tonight, conducted by “citizen scientists.”

For 24 hours Friday, midnight to midnight, bird lovers plan to walk through
local bird habitats recording the number of species they see. Every year,
the data compiled by tens of thousands of observers throughout the Americas
contributes to a greater understanding of which birds are where, and when,
says Phil Hyatt of Mountain Home. That information, he says, leads to
better conservation.

The roadrunner was moving north,” Hyatt said. “We also documented the eurasian
collared dove in two CBCs. They simply were not known in Arkansas when I
was a boy. Neither were house finches.”

Hyatt, 57, became interested in birding in 1966 during a bird walk in
Florida led by a naturalist. He helped manage the state’s bird records for
Audubon Arkansas in the early 1970s and currently volunteers at Buffalo
National River with the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory. His job in the
Christmas Bird Count is to compile the data gathered in Baxter County, in
addition to observing and counting.

But you don’t have to be an expert like Hyatt to take part.

Who can participate?

“We have about 12 people in Baxter County who regularly count,” Hyatt said,
“but the more observers we have, the better the data.”

He hopes more volunteers will get involved, either in the field or watching
their own backyard bird feeders.

Anyone who lives within the designated area can participate, Hyatt says.

“All CBC count areas are designated as circles 15 miles in diameter,” Hyatt
said. “The center point is usually chosen to locate the count area in
desired and variable habitat. In our case, the Midway Post Office serves as
the center point. This allows us to include most of Mountain Home inside
the bypass, most of Cotter, all of Gassville and Lakeview, most of Bull
Shoals, the Pigeon Creek area, but not Cranfield, much of northern Baxter
County.”

Hyatt says anybody interested in participating, whether by joining a group
in the field or watching their own backyard feeder, should call him at
736-1952 for instructions before the count begins.

Diane Mikrut, president of the Audubon Society of North Central Arkansas,
says she’s excited about her first Christmas Bird Count.

“I love nature and I love birds,” she said. “I’m looking forward to being
out there with people who can coach me on how to identify birds.”

Mikrut plans to meet a group at 7:15 a.m. near Lake Norfork.

“We try to match inexperienced with experienced observers,” Hyatt said.

Some groups, he says, will have two to four people. Others may have as many
as 15 or 20.

While there is no fee for feeder watching in the Christmas Bird Count,
field observers are charged $5, for which they receive a copy of the
summary journal published at the end of the international count.

What’s involved in participating?

Observers in the field, whether on land or water, count the numbers of all
birds they see by species, according to Hyatt, and he compiles their
results as though seen by one person.

“Phil sets up regions in the park,” said Park Interpreter Julie Lovett of
the Bull Shoals-White River State Park. “It looks like a big wagon wheel.”

Her group is meeting at 9 a.m. at the trout dock in the park, just past the
pavilion.

“We’ll count at the river and then go up to the wildflower garden,” she
said.
Feeder watchers count birds in a different way, since the same bird is
likely to return to a feeder several times during a day, Hyatt says.

“We ask people watching feeders to count the highest number of birds of one
particular species at any given time,” he said, “and keep track of the
number of hours they watch.”

Hyatt says that rare species sighted during the count week also should be
reported to him.

“If we see an eagle or osprey in the count circle three days before or
after the count day,” he said, “we can record it as seen during count week
but not on count day. This allows the gung-ho observers to find rare
species and still report them.”

Once Hyatt receives all the local data, he compiles it and sends it to the
state Audubon organization with the number of people involved, the hours
spent observing and the weather conditions.

Weather matters.

A look at Hyatt’s historical data for Baxter County shows that only three
turkey vultures were spotted in 1998. In 1999, 248 were counted.

“Turkey Vultures don’t like cold, rainy weather,” Hyatt said. “If the count
day happens to be rainy, you may not see any. If it is warm and sunny, you
may see 248. So we record weather conditions.”

Hyatt says that while weather matters, the degree of expertise in observers
does not.

“The variations in the count are so wild that the data isn’t perfect,” he
said, “but you get so much data that volume compensates for the lack of
scientific accuracy.”

Why does it matter?

The National Audubon Society lavishes praise on citizen scientists who take
part in the CBC. Its Web site states, “Each of the citizen scientists who
annually braves snow, wind, or rain, to take part in the Christmas Bird
Count makes an enormous contribution to conservation.

“Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running
wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations, and to help guide
conservation action.”

Hyatt and Mikrut agree.

“We don’t see the population change over night,” Hyatt said, “so we don’t
realize the change in the environment and habitat until it’s too late.”

He cites Baxter County’s prairie history as an example. Birds that once
populated local prairies and farm fields no longer find their preferred
habitat here, where forests have taken over much of the land.

The Audubon site states that bird counts help “identify environmental
issues with implications for people as well. For example, local trends in
bird populations can indicate habitat fragmentation or signal an immediate
environmental threat, such as groundwater contamination or poisoning from
improper use of pesticides.”

“Birds are one of the very first indicators of what’s happening on our
planet,” Mikrut said.

Hyatt says scientists are using CBC data to watch the effects of climate
change on birds. Statistics at www.audubon.org show that “177 species show
a significant shift north and this northward shift was correlated with an
increase in mean January temperatures in the contiguous 48 states of almost
5 degrees during that time.”

But according to Hyatt, the best thing about the CBC is that it’s fun.

“We do this for fun more than science,” he said. “The science is very
useful and important, but it is also a fun day. The amount of adventure is
up to the participant — riding, walking, boating. We need more boaters who
are willing to look for loons and grebes and know what they are looking at!”

To participate in the Christmas Bird Count, call Hyatt at 736-1952. For
more information, visit www.audubon.org.

The Audubon Society of North Central Arkansas meets on second Mondays at 1
p.m. at Redeemer Lutheran Church. Guests are welcome. On Jan. 11, Lucinda
Reynolds will speak on “Birds, Bugs and Native Plants: Part of a Perfect
Balance (Creating a Backyard Habitat).”

“If the CBC sparks an interest in people,” Mikrut said, “that would be
wonderful.”

dpeterson@baxterbulletin.com

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