Christmas Bird Count

The story of the Yanayacu 113th Christmas Bird Count Circle

By Caleb Gordon

Ecuador’s Yanayacu Christmas Bird Count circle is arguably the most biodiverse CBC circle possible on planet Earth. Here, just south of the equator on the eastern slope of the Ecuadorian Andes, America's original citizen science tradition has been reborn as a vibrant Ecuadorian birding festival. The success of the Yanayacu count is a testament to how a regional culture of conservation can be built from something as simple as the joy of birding.   

Inspired by the highly successful and long-running tradition of the Mindo Christmas Bird Count, located on the western slope of Ecuadorian Andes, and his own region’s incredible biodiversity, Harold Greeney, founder of the Yanayacu Center for Creative Studies, began Yanayacu’s first count with an informal, preliminary CBC in 2005. It wasn’t hard for Harold to convince his bird-nerd friends and colleagues—including me, his grad school buddy—to join him. I didn’t need to be asked twice to take on compiler responsibilities. 

Our goal wasn’t just to see birds, but also to sow the seeds of a locally-based tradition of citizen science, bird appreciation, and nature conservation in the Papallacta-Tena region of Ecuador, just as we had seen blossom so beautifully in Mindo. For the 107th CBC, December 2006, we laid out the boundaries of our circle and mounted our first formal effort—observing 251 bird species with 29 participants. We have conducted this count each year since, and the growth in both birds and participation has surpassed our wildest dreams.

 

Table 1: Numbers of bird species observed and participants by year in the Yanayacu Christmas Bird Count Circle.

Count year

107

108

109

110

111

112

113

# of bird species observed

251

309

373

414

412

492

493

# of participants

29

54

73

107

63

89

148

 

 

If Harold and friends planted the initial seed, the remarkable growth of this count over its mere eight year history is a result of the fertile soil and ideal growing conditions this nascent tradition encountered upon sprouting. The incredible avian biodiversity of the region is certainly important to the count’s success, but the hard work and talent of people too numerous to mention have made the incredible growth in participation possible. Creation of an Ecuadorian bird field guide, firmly putting the San Isidro valley on the Ecuadorian birding map, training a generation of local bird tour guide leaders, and creating a research station and training a generation of local biologists were all essential parts of growing the local citizen science community.

 

 

This amazing cadre of birders brings to mind another that paved the way—the birding community of Mindo, Ecuador that organizes and participates in Mindo’s thriving 20-year-old CBC. The first time I visited Mindo to participate in their CBC, I could not believe my eyes.  A giant statue of an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock stood at the entrance to the town, murals depicting birds and other wild creatures lined the streets, a sign measuring roughly 8 x 2 meters (yes, meters) was hung over the main street in the town center depicting local birds and reading, "Silencio por favor.  Estamos contando aves" (Silence please, bird count in progress).

At the pre-count organizational meeting held in the town auditorium, local politicians spoke, the organizers gave an informative presentation on Frank Chapman and the origin of the CBC tradition. T-shirts and box lunches were handed out to all 150+ participants, and observers were assigned to one of 39 different birding parties for the count.  Where was I—Avitopia?  

In light of Greg Butcher's recent article on the Mindo count, I will keep my description of their incredible event short, but I am compelled to acknowledge the awesome contribution that so many of the Mindo birders have made to the Yanayacu count, not only by showing us how it could be done, but also by making the five hour schlep over to our side of the Andes each year to lend their birding talent and energy to our own CBC. Over 70 people from Mindo have participated in the Yanayacu count over the past eight years and the Yanayacu count simply wouldn't be what it is today without their vision, energy, skill, friendship, mentorship, and most of all, passion for birds. 

 

  

The Yanayacu count organizer, Jose Simbana, and the cadre of route leaders that he coordinates and manages each year are of course the heart of our CBC. The Yanayacu station manager, Jose had the right experience to run the complex logistics of the count. Jose manages fundraising, advertising, and planning for the 150-person event that provides free meals, t-shirts, and an informative pre-count meeting in the town auditorium for participants.

 Jose has added the element of local folkloric dance and musical performances to the pre-count organization "meeting" (which is really more of a party), an addition that was quickly emulated by the Mindo count. Jose starts planning the event a bit earlier each year, and has made it bigger and better, cultivating participation and bringing in people from an ever-growing reach of towns within the region—including Papallacta, Baeza, Cosanga, Narupa, Archidona, and Tena, Quito, and Mindo. Jose's outreach is focused on the importance of avian-centered citizen science and conservation. 

Backing up Jose are the Yanayacu CBC route captains, all of whom hail from towns within 30 km of the station, and whose maturation as birders and leaders has made the largest contribution to the growth in total bird species observed on the count over the past eight years. One or two teams of all-stars cannot get to 300, 400, or an incredible 493 species observed, by themselves.  During this year’s 113th count we had 19 routes, our greatest yet.

 

In closing, I'll return to the unparalleled rich, birdy goodness we Yanayacu count participants get to enjoy at least once each year through our CBC.  I can't think of a better way to add color to the picture of the Yanayacu count circle avifauna than with a few choice numbers:

 631:  Number of species on our count checklist based on possible/plausible occurrence in circle
79: Number of species of flycatchers recorded in history of count, not including becards or tityras
73: Number of species of tanagers recorded in history of count, not including Euphonias or Chlorophonias
53: Number of species of hummingbirds recorded in history of count
30:  Number of species of furnariids recorded in history of count, not including woodcreepers
28:  Number of species of raptor recorded in history of count, including vultures and falcons
23:  Number of species of Thamnophilid antbirds recorded in history of count
20:  Approximate percentage of land area within our circle that is accessible by trail or road
18:  Number of species of warbler recorded in history of count
17:  Number of species in the genus Tangara recorded in history of count
15:  Number of species of wren recorded in history of count
14:  Number of species of parrot recorded in history of count
13: Number of species of antipittas recorded in history of count (including gnateater), also number of owls, and also number of cotingas
12:  Number of species of woodcreeper species recorded in history of count
11: Number of species of toucan recorded in history of count
9:  Number of species of manakin recorded in history of count
8:  Number of species of icterid recorded in history of count
7:  Number of species of foliage-gleaners recorded in history of count
6:  Number of species of flower-piercers recorded in history of count
5:  Number of species of ciconiiformes ever observed in history of count (including storks), also number of charadriiform species, number of Euphonia species, and number of bush-tanager species.
3:  Number of bird species recorded on counts that are not included in Ridgely and Greenfield Ecuador bird book.
1:  Number of species of anseriformes ever observed in history of count
1:  Number of species recorded on count that do not possess a scientific name
0: Number of open bodies of open water within count circle

 

 Participation in the CBC is free and open to anyone interested. If you would like to know more about the Yanayacu count or get involved contact Caleb at calebbirds@gmail.com