500 Christmas Bird Counts and Still Going

Paul Sykes marks a milestone with an account of his 62-year affiliation with the CBC.

Editor's note: In December 2015 Paul Sykes participated in his 500th Christmas Bird Count. On his 78th birthday. Read on about his experiences and why he's so keen on winter birding.

Christmas Bird Counts have been a passion with me during the latter half of December and early January for 62 years.  The counts are a tradition with me, as I have the opportunity to see lots of different species in many habitats, get reacquainted with relatives and old friends, meet new people, and enjoy all the camaraderie.  Including the 116th CBC count period (2015-2016), I have participated on 503 counts in seven states in the southeastern United States and have been on 44 different counts.  My participation involves one count per calendar day with a minimum of six hours (but usually averages between 11-12 hours) in the field per count.  I have participated on eight CBCs for 20 or more years, four for more than 50 years, and two for more than 60 years (Back Bay NWR and Little Creek, both in my native Virginia).  Back Bay NWR was my 400th and 500th counts.

It was no coincidence that Back Bay NWR was my 400th CBC in 2008 (Sykes 2009) and my 500th in 2015.  This was planned as I neared each of these plateaus.  This count has been a significant part of my birding history.  It was the first I participated on in 1953 at age of 15 (compiled by my mentor, Floy C. Burford), and the first count I became compiler of the next year at the age of 16.  I have been its organizer and compiler every year since, except for 1962 when I was out of the country on a U.S. Navy ship deployed to the Mediterranean.  The Back Bay count in 2015 was on my 78th birthday.  I have not been home on my birthday in over 50 years, since I am usually hundreds of miles away on a Christmas Bird Count.

The Back Bay NWR Christmas Bird Count was established by John H. Grey, Jr. and Harry A. Bailey in 1938.  From 1938-1947, the count was conducted only on the refuge, which at that time was smaller than at present.  The freshwater impoundments had not yet been built, and the refuge was mainly on the east side of the bay along the barrier beach plus several islands in the bay.  There was no road at that time, instead you had to walk or drive the beach five miles south from the nearest road at Sandbridge, or take a boat to reach the refuge.  Now you can drive to the refuge visitors’ center on a paved road.  The current count circle covers much of southern Virginia Beach.  The circle includes all of the Back Bay NWR, all of the brackish to freshwater bay, the northern part of Knotts Island, as well as its marshes in Virginia and North Carolina, Blackwater, Pungo, Land of Promise, Sigma, Sandbridge, and the northern part of False Cape State Park.

This was the 76th year for the Back Bay NWR Christmas Bird Count, and it was held on 29 December 2015.  Twenty-six participants working in 10 to 15 field parties tallied 128 species of birds with a total of about 46,186 individuals.  Some of the count highlights were an estimated 20,000 Red-throated Loons (most flying northward in the morning—several one-minute counts were made to calculate the high number—the previous high on this count was 3,662 in 2006); a high of 730 White Ibis; a high of 25 Bald Eagles (from 1961 to 1992 the species was absent from this count for most years); a first cycle winter plumage Glaucous Gull (this is only the third record for this count); and the first for the count was an ASH-THROATED FLYCATCHER (photographed).  The restaurant where we planned to have the compilation and enjoy a nice meal had good food and service, but was crowded and too noisy.  So following dinner, two of the participants graciously had the group over to their home for the countdown.  Thus concluded my 500th CBC:  I was ecstatic having met my goal.

I have had the opportunity to create five CBCs:  Bodie-Pea Island, NC; Lake Oconee, GA (with Steve Holzman); Little Creek, VA; Nansemond River, VA; and Norfolk County/ Chesapeake, VA.  All but the latter are still active.  Being a CBC organizer and compiler for 61 years has been most enjoyable.  During that time I compiled 202 counts.  I have compiled the Bodie-Pea island CBC for 51 years and Back Bay NWR and Little Creek counts for 61 years each.  Hundreds of birders participating on the six CBCs that I have compiled through the years have made the counts possible, and I thank them all.

In 2000, the 101st CBC period, National Audubon permanently set the dates for the count period from 14 December through 5 January, a total of 23 days, which encompassed the extreme dates the counts had been held throughout the CBC history (Geoff LeBaron pers. comm.).  This greatly aided with planning the counts.  The Back Bay NWR count has generally been held between 28 December and 1 January.  As the number of CBCs on the upper North Carolina and Virginia coasts proliferated over the years, it became a hassle determining which count would be on what date each year to avoid conflicts (competition for participants).  To avoid most conflicts between counts, Harry Armistead (Compiler for Cape Charles), Pat Moore (Compiler for Cape Hatteras), and I collaborated and permanently established dates for our five counts, starting south and going north as follows:  Cape Hatteras, NC, on 27 December (26 December is a travel day for many participants on these counts), Bodie-Pea Island, NC, on 28th, Back Bay NWR, VA, on 29th, Cape Charles, VA, on 30th, and Little Creek, VA, on 31st.  This plan has worked well.

I was a Christmas Bird Count regional editor for 27 years, 1974-2000 (count periods 75 through 101).  From 1974 through 1985, I edited counts for North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and from 1986 through 2000 I edited counts for Georgia and Florida.  During the 27-year span, I edited 2172 counts and wrote region summaries for each year (Sykes 2009, Four hundred and counting:  reflections on a long association with the Christmas Bird Counts.  American Birds 63:16-23, 119).

In mid-February 2016, I was honored and most pleasantly surprised when the staff of the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge presented me with a CONSERVATION LEGACY AWARD in recognition of my sustained and unwavering dedication to the Christmas Bird Count at the refuge and for reaching a record 500 counts.  The refuge is the centerpiece of the Back Bay Count. It was started there because of the area’s rich biodiversity, particularly for wintering waterfowl of the Atlantic Flyway.  I have gotten to know most of the Back Bay NWR staffs through the years since the early 1950s when Jack E. Perkins was the refuge manager and Rommie Waterfield was the assistant.  I have received refuge staff assistance with planning and logistics, and some staffers have actively participated on the counts.  The count would not be possible without their aid.

Are 600 Christmas Bird Counts possible?  Time will tell.