The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #25: Go Join Your Local Audubon Christmas Bird Count

It's the gift that keeps on giving.

The terrifying crowds of Black Friday signify more than just the undignified end to Thanksgiving and the start of the Christmas season. For birders, they also signify the official end of fall migration and the beginning of winter birding. Winter can be a difficult time for new birders, especially if you haven’t yet discovered the pleasures of sorting through a flock of identical-looking gulls in a parking lot. It’s cold. It gets dark early. There are just fewer birds around to look at.

But what are we going to do, stop birding? No way. Winter is the time for birders to double-down, come together, and bird the heck out of their area. Winter is the time for Christmas Bird Counts.

Let me make this clear right now: I HIGHLY recommend that all birders—but especially new birders—join their local Christmas Bird Count. For expert birders it’s just a great day of birding, but for new birders, Christmas Bird Counts (aka ‘CBCs’) are the ideal way to meet local birders, learn a lot about birding sites in the area, and see loads of birds. If I’ve sold you already, go sign up here. If you don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, keep reading. Actually, please keep reading anyway.

Christmas Bird Counts are bird-counting events, created and organized by this here National Audubon Society, taking place within a specific area on a specific day between mid-December and early January. Count leaders send out groups of birders to work segments within a 15-mile-diameter circle. The groups then scour their sectors, checking each stand of trees, backyard feeder, and little pond that time allows while counting each and every individual bird they see. Depending on the area you’re covering and how many birders there are, some counts have you bird all day and others just a few hours. Either way, at the end of the day, the birders come back together, usually returning to coffee and food, so that everyone can tally up the results. When all is said and done, you’ve compiled a representative list of local bird species and population numbers, which can be compared against previous years.

And compared they are. Christmas Bird Counts have been going on since 1900, when ornithologist and early Audubon friend Frank Chapman helped organize a non-lethal counterpart to popular brutal “side hunt” competitions of the day. What started with 25 count circles across the country has expanded into thousands of birders participating in hundreds of counts in the U.S. and across the globe. Although the censuses aren’t perfectly precise, they contribute to a body of knowledge that has helped us track bird species and population movements for more than a century.

Plus, they're just fun. I’ve participated in CBCs all across the country. My first was in Aspen, Colorado, where I met Al Levantin, an incredible birder and one of the subjects of Mark Obmascik’s classic The Big Year. Thankfully I wasn’t assigned to bird with him (I was a terrible birder back then and would have been mortified about trying to make IDs with such a legend). Instead, I went out with some other guy who was even worse than I was and who angrily insisted that all the crows we were seeing were ravens (they were crows). The same guy also thought we found a rare group of swans until I gently pointed out that they were gulls. Still, I had a wonderful time.

Rough-legged Hawk. Photo: Harry Colquhoun/Audubon Photography Awards

My next few CBCs were around Portland, Maine, which included years that were unseasonably warm—good for lingering migrants—and years that were frigidly cold—good for northern irruptives and drinking a lot of coffee. I think my favorite memory from those CBCs was the time my birding pal Doug and I stumbled on a pond in a housing development that happened to be the only ice-free water for miles. Consequently, it was chock-full of waterfowl, including a whole bunch of species that none of the other birders in the CBC found. I’ll never forget the group’s growing amazement at the end-of-day tally as Doug and I kept raising our hands for species that no one else called out.

It was colder than I expected for the CBC I joined when I lived in north Mississippi. We stomped all through the tall grass of Sardis Wildlife Refuge, turning up Le Conte’s Sparrows, a Sedge Wren, and a rare Rough-legged Hawk. We had 71 species in total, my highest ever for a single CBC.

For the past few years I’ve helped D.C. Audubon lead a group of a dozen or so birders through Battery Kemble Park in Northwest D.C. The birds aren’t quite as exotic—it’s a great count if you love Northern Cardinals and White-throated Sparrows—but we have run into the South Korean Ambassador. We're also pretty sure we saw Peter Jennings walking his dog one time. In the D.C. area on December 17th this year? Join us!

In addition to a great single day of birding, participating in a CBC means you’re part of an international movement. Ever year Audubon tallies up information about Count Circles, participants, and, of course, the species counted. The 2015/2016 CBC set a new record with, and I hope you’re sitting down for this, 76,669 birders working 2,505 Count Circles. Keep sitting down, because more huge numbers are coming. Birders counted 58,878,071 individual birds, 54,531,408 of those in the United States alone. The Count Circle for Matagorda County-Mad Island Marsh, Texas, identified the most species of any U.S. count at 239, which itself was blown away by the 509 species counted during the count in Yanayacu, Ecuador. Phew!

So, if you want to be part of all this—and you should!—go to the Audubon website to find the Count Circle near you and sign up. You’ll get an email back from the organizer of your local count telling you the wheres and the whens, and letting you know which section of the Count Circle you’ll be birding and with whom.

Christmas Bird Counts are as sacred a tradition as there is in birding. Many of us don’t need an excuse to get out birding—even in the depths of winter—but the fact that we’re with friends and connecting to a century’s worth of effort and information makes it all the more meaningful. For new birders, the opportunity to meet some other area birders and learn more about birds and nearby locations should not be missed. Merry Christmas Bird Count!

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