The Christmas Bird Count Is a Window to a Changing World

A veteran counter reflects on shifts in New Jersey's birds during the past 40 Decembers, for better and for worse.

1975 was the year the final Watergate verdicts were handed out; the year the Vietnam War ended; the year Jaws terrorized theatergoers and sold millions of tickets.

It was also the year I did my first Christmas Bird Counts.

Forty-two years later, I no longer do three counts in New Jersey. But I’ve never missed the one in Cumberland County, on the state's southwestern edge along Delaware Bay. Every winter I cover my home turf of Turkey Point: a maze of saltmarsh trails, tidal switchbacks, and sumac, cedar, and barberry hummocks. As the birds come and go here, I keep score, and from them I learn of a changing world.

The name Turkey Point started as a misnomer: When Frank Chapman first instituted the Christmas Bird Count in 1900, Wild Turkeys were nowhere to be found in New Jersey. Now, thanks to reintroduction efforts, it’s rare that any circle doesn’t turn up this grand bird. The resident flock in my territory tops 50 birds.

Population change is a road that runs both ways, however. When the Cumberland County compiler calls out “Northern Bobwhite,” our silence speaks volumes; the game bird is as elusive as a politician’s promise. Despite active restocking efforts, this once common resident has been all but extirpated from its Jersey domain. No one knows why.

Also in flux are our regal raptor populations. Previously at the roundups, only a few counters would answer to “Bald Eagle.” But today there’s always a chorus of “yeahs” from the crowd, along with an unofficial contest for the most sightings. Given that my territory is a haunt for hunting eagles, my group often wins. Last year, we tallied 20-plus Bald Eagles—and had 17 in view at once. So, why this surge? Post-DDT recovery and a surfeit of waterfowl have boosted populations nationwide, and have lifted Peregrine and Osprey tallies as well.

Speaking of waterfowl, many Decembers ago, I never knew whether the ponds dotting Turkey Point would be frozen over. Today they tend to be ice-free and full of Common Mergansers and Ring-necked Ducks, which both used to be hit-or-miss sightings. Snow Geese, on the other hand, are turning up short. Once abundant in Cumberland County with numbers in the tens of thousands, we’re now hard-pressed to find a thousand birds. To this I ascribe a phenomenon known as “short stopping.” With standing snowpack much reduced across the Northeast, and farmers planting acres of corn and soy, the geese have little reason to migrate farther south to munch on saltmarsh vegetation. Instead, they now stop over in rural Hunterdon County, where an inflated count underscores the shift. Our loss is their gain.

Tides are another signal of turnover. Where flooding was once episodic around the Delaware Bayshore, sea-level rise has made it frequent and pervasive, inundating high-marsh habitat and small-rodent populations. As a result, raptors are being pulled into decline as well. The Rough-legged Hawk, once a cold-weather resident here, is now largely absent. Short-eared Owls are not a guaranteed prize, either. Wintering raptors go where prey is abundant and accessible, so the Short-eareds have moved inland, along with their diurnal counterparts, Northern Harriers. During one Christmas Bird Count, I remember totalling 70 harriers in a 360-degree scan at the end of Turkey Pont road. These days, I’m fortunate to break 20. 

Of course, the pendulum swings back in other ways. Warmer, snow-deprived Decembers mean greater survival for less hardy species like the Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, and Eastern Towhee. I used to dedicate most Christmas Bird Count afternoons to tracking down these passerines, but now I collect all three by call at dawn. The same goes for my favorite target: the Sedge Wren. Back when this bird was called Short-billed Marsh Wren, compiler Don Kunkle would interrogate any participant who dared utter the bird’s name. But in recent years, I’ve tallied it without fail. In fact, the current compiler, Mike Fritz, scowls if our party doesn't produce the grass-colored recluse.

In the case I don’t turn up a wren this year, I can still find redemption in a Green Heron or a Glossy Ibis or a Nashville Warbler. Seeing these improbable species is always a pleasure, but the opportunity only presents itself because of global warming and other human factors. The times are a-changing, and the thousands of records that pour out of the Christmas Bird Count prove as much. It’s an invaluable window to the past and a lens trained on the future. Remember that when you’re out there.